Joan Crawford’s cameo in It’s a Great Feeling (1949) hilariously plays on her star image as a larger-than-life melodrama queen. She launches into a speech right out of Mildred Pierce, waves off Doris Day when the peppy hopeful tries to rein her in, and expertly slaps both Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. “I do that in all my pictures,” she cracks with airy self-awareness then jauntily makes her exit.
But the cameo shows another aspect of Crawford’s life that would’ve been well known to her fans and regular movie magazine readers. When a cut reveals mink-wrapped Crawford behind Carson and Morgan, she’s knitting—cute little aquamarine socks on double-pointed needles, no less. Many movie stars knitted, but Crawford was indisputably the stitch goddess of Hollywood.
Crawford’s knitting was news to fan magazines. Screenland practically had a dedicated Joan Crawford knitting beat. In 1934, Weston East devoted several lines to her prolific gift knitting:
“Joan Crawford is knitting her fifth baby blanket…. Joan always gives blankets to her friends’ babies—and her gifts are particularly valuable because she knits every blanket herself. Joan is getting so adept at knitting that she can now turn out a blanket, working between scenes and at home at night, in about twelve days.”
“Joan Crawford was so nervous at the preview of ‘Flamingo Road’ that she actually dropped a stitch in her knitting—unheard of for Joan, who’s so expert she can knit blindfolded in a dark cellar at midnight.”
That might be the most badass description of needlework proficiency I’ve ever read.
Crawford’s constant knitting made an impression on her costars. Sometimes too much of an impression; George Cukor asked her to leave the set of The Women because her loud clickety-clack was, perhaps intentionally, fraying at Norma Shearer’s nerves. Fred MacMurray remembered Joan’s stitchwork as a sign of her boundless energy, “As soon as we’d finish a scene, out would come her knitting and she’d get to work on that.”
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. recalled Crawford almost constantly knitting during their marriage. She, in turn, told Charlotte Chandler that she brought her knitting to Pickfair to cope with her unease among the in-laws: “I could keep my hands busy, because I was so nervous.”
My favorite Crawford knitting anecdote comes from the uncertain period between her arrival at Warner Brothers and her Oscar triumph. And it involves her famous rival Bette Davis, also a knitter. Cal York of Photoplay reported:
“Those who waited for the guns to explode when Queen Crawford met up with Queen Davis on the Warner lot can relax. We understand a pair of knitting needles have brought the two together. It seems Bette knitted a sweater that turned out not so well and Joan is now unraveling and doing it over for Bette. Will they be that amiable over a coveted movie script, one wonders?”
My confidence in this anecdote is strengthened by others I’ve heard of Crawford going out of her way—maybe even going overboard—to pay her respects to Warners Brothers’ reigning diva. Nevertheless, it’s wise to take fan mags with a grain of salt. Is this story true? Well, let’s just say I want to believe.
The Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. A poison which may also be a cure. A cure which may also be a poison. Plato associated the term with writing, and Derrida concluded, by extension, that “the god of writing must also be the god of death.” Most writers I know would agree. At least some of the time.
Film, another medium of substitution, deception, and instability, is a pharmakon in my life too. It shatters me, piques me, messes with me, hypnotizes me, pulls me outside of myself, distracts me from my day job, and generally gives me reasons to keep on living.
My yearly roundup of favorite new-to-me films often betrays some loose theme or pattern. The 2019 harvest yielded a high proportion of poisoned apples: movies reveling in temptation or moral extremes. Wickedness took many forms, from voluptuous demoness Elena Sangro to hedonistic lord of the manor David Farrar to noir’s ne plus ultra bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Fortunately such unlikely angels as Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea, and Ann Sheridan were on hand to balance the cosmic scales. So here’s to the things that poison us and the things that keep us alive. May they forever intertwine in cinema.
1. Maciste all’inferno (Guido Brignone, 1926)
What’s it about?
Powerful demons mingle with mortals to ensnare souls. When big hunky superhero blacksmith Maciste intervenes to save his cousin from dishonor, the baddies transport him down to Hell. But those devils get more than they bargained for.
Why do I love it?
If some maniac decided to adapt Dante’s Inferno as part of the Marvel Extended Universe, the result still couldn’t touch this wild adventure from the silent Maciste series. Once we get to Hell, the sheer surreal saturnalia on display stands as a testament to just how trippy silent popular cinema could be—and frequently was. A hellish vamp’s kiss transforms Maciste into a demon with shaggy legs and horns. Bevies of brimstone beauties vie for his attention. Our musclebound hero leads a demon army to victory in an intra-Inferno civil war. A demon’s face, punched concave by Maciste, rebuilds itself in a spellbinding close-up.
At the beginning of the year I watched a whole bunch of silent movies about Hell to research a piece for SF Silent Film Festival. As you might expect, that involved many hours of wallowing in guilt and despair. Rather refreshingly—even blasphemously—Maciste all’inferno was the most fun I had in Hell all year. It shows sympathy for the damned, yet treats Hell like some weird adult theme park designed by Doré for demons. Given the playfulness and overt sensuality of its spectacle and inventive special effects, the film’s creators were clearly more interested in delivering pleasure than preachments.
Federico Fellini mentioned Maciste all’inferno as his earliest film memory and a lifelong influence on his work. That explains a lot. The silent film’s panoply of grotesque eroticism and nimble leaps between fantasy and reality—or merely different registers of reality?—feel distinctly Fellini-esque.
Where can you see it?
It’s on YouTube.
2. Midnight Mystery (George B. Seitz, 1930)
What’s it about?
Pulp novelist Sally Wayne and her gaggle of murder-obsessed friends are enjoying a quiet weekend in a creepy island castle. Sally’s rich stick-in-the-mud fiancé decides to stage a phony murder to teach Sally a lesson, but when a real body turns up, he’s the prime suspect.
Why do I love it?
The Gothic elegance of this early talkie, with its cavernous Max Rée art direction and creeping camera movements, nourishes me as pure cinematic comfort food. There are silhouettes and self-playing pianos and clanging buoys and opulent candelabras and howling winds and a villain eavesdropping from an overstuffed armchair. But plenty of movies have “atmosphere in chunks,” to borrow a phrase from the script. This old dark house movie earned a place in my heart because its girl sleuth heroine enjoys an unusually triumphant fadeout. When we celebrate the maturity of pre-Code films, we’re often talking about sex, drugs, and hard-hitting social commentary. But this modest comedy thriller arrives at something quietly progressive even for its anything-goes era: a worldly woman who single-handedly cracks the case and makes her man eat his words.
To love studio-era cinema, you have to inoculate yourself against groan-worthy, tacked-on endings in which sharp dames renounce their identities and accept their role as some schmoe’s passive helpmate. Midnight Mystery, however, concludes with a different balance of power. Sally’s morbid, melodramatic mind enables her to unravel the mystery and catch the killer. In a sly turn of psychological Judo, Sally leverages the villain’s lustfulness and exhibitionism against him and extracts a public confession. “I learned the trick writing thrillers, dime novels, trash,” she explains. This is where we expect her to add, “And no more! I’ve had enough of murder” etc. etc. But, lo and behold, her fiancé capitulates instead: “I give in. I don’t deserve you in a thousand years…. Detect all you want. And I hope all our ten children are detectives.” Corny? Sure. But his humble embrace of Sally’s trashy passion—he wanted her to bust up her typewriter a few reels ago—goes against the grain of so many glib Hollywood endings.
Betty Compson digs into the screwball feistiness of her character with gusto. Though her cutesy voice can grate on one’s nerves, her expertly staged histrionics at the end more than compensate. As the suave murderer, Lowell Sherman infuses his part with devious glee—campy enough to be humorous but lecherous enough to be a threat. At one point he picks up a silk stocking of Sally’s from the back of a chair and rubs it appreciatively between his fingertips. Why, he even glances towards the camera, as though he’d like to be considered for inclusion in your Best of Pre-Code sizzle reel.
Where can you see it?
It’s on ok.ru. Since it’s an RKO Radio film, I have no idea why it’s not on Warner Archive DVD. Maybe some rights issue? In any case, I’d buy it.
3. Men in Her Life (William Beaudine, 1931)
What’s it about?
Betrayed by a gold-digging lothario and stranded in the French countryside, broke socialite Julia Cavanaugh befriends Flash, a vacationing bootlegger with social aspirations. Julia jumps at the chance to earn money working as a one-woman finishing school for the clearly smitten Flash. Though they fall for each other, class differences and Julia’s past indiscretions threaten their happiness.
Why do I love it?
In essence, it’s “My Fair Gangster”—an irreverent, gender-flipped riff on the Pygmalion formula. But instead of watching an overbearing professor sculpt a spirited guttersnipe into a lady, we savor the gentle chemistry as a ruined debutante gives her big lug client a crash course in etiquette. By helping Flash navigate the glitterati in Paris, Julia builds a sense of self-efficacy and gains perspective on the superficial life she used to know.
Who would’ve suspected that Charles Bickford could carry a rom-com as a leading man? Not me, surely. Yet his guileless toughness and aw-shucks delivery made this obscure Columbia film a major highlight at the most recent Capitolfest. As his lady love, the luminous Lois Moran conveys her character’s inherent grace and bruised uncertainty.
With its sharp dialogue and wacky situations, this breezy send-up of class relations, scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, deserves a mention in the history of screwball comedy. Although it veers into drama towards the middle and courtroom drama at the end, the humor of Flash and Julia’s courtship and their adventures among the vapid socialites in Paris remain the most rewarding and memorable aspects of the film. The fact that a coarse crook turns out to be the truest gentleman of all strikes me as quite a Riskin-esque reversal of conventions. When Julia finally proposes to Flash with the same routine he had practiced on her earlier in the film, you could feel the audience at Capitolfest sigh out a collective “Awwww” before such cuteness.
Speaking of overturned conventions, the film doesn’t hide that Julia spent the night with a faux-noble seducer. The whole plot hinges on it. But that doesn’t matter to Flash. The fallen woman nabs a rich, lovable man who worships her and would literally kill for her. And they live happily ever after. Now that’s pre-Code.
Where can you see it?
Maybe at some rare film festival or archive screening. I would love to see this get a DVD or Blu release.
4. Union Depot (Alfred E. Greene, 1932)
What’s it about?
Rakish vagrant Chick comes into possession of some stolen money and decides to spend the night with Ruth Collins, an out-of-work chorine. Once they’ve gotten over the misunderstanding that she’s a sex worker, Chick resolves to set things right for Ruth and get her on the train to Salt Lake City for a job. But the cops, crooks, and Ruth’s stalker have other plans.
Why do I love it?
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. orders “a flock of hot biscuits” from a train station lunch counter. That’s all I need in a movie.
Seriously, though, if you could harness the charm that Dougie Jr. and Joan Blondell exude and somehow convert that into fuel, we’d never have an energy crisis again. These are two world champions of sparkling for the camera. It’s awfully sweet to watch them sparkling at each other. And I’m simply mad about train stations, even recreated on sound stages. This film evokes the romance of the criss-crossing destinies they contain. I’d need to watch the film again to get the whole story straight. It’s a speedy tangle of assumed identities, stolen goods, bums, hookers, investigators, and a pervert in dark glasses, all handled with the pacy vigor we crave from a pre-Code Warner Brothers film. Despite the morass of plot, the emotional through-line—Fairbanks behaving like a cad then spending the rest of the movie trying to prove his nobility to Blondell—stays strong and poignant. You catch yourself rooting hard for these two crazy kids. Which makes the ending quite a blow.
Pre-Code movies did so much of what New Hollywood movies get credit for inventing. And they often did it in half the runtime. Union Depot leaves viewers with the jarring sense of “wait, that can’t be the end” as the credits flash up. Its wrenching, unsentimental conclusion reminded me of those oft-cited gut-punch denouements from films of the 60s and 70s. Admittedly, there’s far less cynicism here, since Fairbanks Jr. does enjoy his shining moment as Blondell’s champion. But as Ruth speeds away towards a precarious future on that midnight train to Salt Lake, Chick ends up right where he started, maybe worse off. He’s a vagrant with zero prospects. His dream girl left, never to see him again. Being a hero might feel swell for a second, but in practical terms? It doesn’t mean a thing. So he flips up his collar, shrugs off despair, and walks into the night with nobody but fellow bum Guy Kibbee to split a cigarette with. Forget her, Chick. It’s Union Depot.
Where can you see it?
It’s available from Warner Archive.
5. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)
What’s it about?
Jewish lawyer George Simon rose from humble origins to become one of New York’s most sought-after attorneys. Now that he’s on top, however, his professional rivals are out to get him with a vengeance. He’s got a Society Register wife who doesn’t much like him. And a good deed he committed in days gone by—fraud to save a weak man in a jam—is coming back to haunt him…
Why do I love it?
Because it kept me on the edge of my seat and held my emotions hostage until the very last moment. Though categorized as a drama, its level of tension and relentless drive seem more in tune with what we’d call a legal thriller today. I went in expecting something preachy and/or badly stereotyped, but the joke’s on me, and I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. William Wyler was a great director. We all know that. But only lately I’ve realized how early he was a great director. When I saw The Storm in 2018 at Capitolfest, the film suggested that his talent for shaping cinematic space and building suspense through subtly shifting relationships was already crystallizing in 1930. Well, Counsellor at Law is a leap ahead of The Storm. A work of staggering assurance and efficiency, this film would be the crowning achievement of many directors’ careers. Wyler, as we know, was warming up.
Barrymore, an actor whom I love but do not usually associate with restraint, rose to the occasion in portraying George Simon. He’s exasperating and irresistible, hilarious and tragic, icy and passionate, naïve and cynical. A seductive monument of contradictions. But never a caricature. The images of the film that I remember most are a swooping crane shot towards Barrymore, then a close-up of his eyes shining like star sapphires (on nitrate), as the idea of suicide comes to him. Barrymore may have never been better, or realer, onscreen than at the moment when, manning the switchboard in his empty office, Simon gets a call that devastates him. And he finds that, in the eyes of the frivolous woman he married, he’s no more worthy than the little boy who got his start manning that switchboard decades ago. Everybody, from chirpy office lady Isabel Jewell to blasé wastrel Melvyn Douglas, is on point in Counsellor at Law. They’re like gears in some giant, rhythmic, artful machine. But Bebe Daniels, playing Simon’s sharp but soulful secretary, nearly steals the show as the heart of the film. We cannot help but love Simon because she loves him, and we can tell that so fine a person as her could only love someone whom she truly respected.
The script by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own stage play, is a race car engine that Wyler drives with aplomb. Without leaving a posh Manhattan office, gleaming in its sleek Deco majesty, the screenwriter and the director create a fluid, exciting space where worlds collide. In George Simon’s waiting room, a communist agitator clenches his fists at the the bourgeois prattle of Simon’s two revoltingly pampered step-children. Indeed, Counsellor at Law boldly interrogates some big social and ethical issues. What is success, really, in a society where success often means disowning parts of your identity? Should you die fighting an oppressive system tooth and nail, or can you do good by working within that system? Is it worth it? But the film lets those questions hang in the air, raising them but refusing to settle them. Thank heavens. Answers are usually far less interesting than questions anyway.
Because it dares to stand on the window ledge of despair, preparing to splatter our hero all over the pavement, this movie truly earns it last-minute His Girl Friday-esque ending. The flawed, tormented lawyer finds his match in the vivacious, brainy beauty who was 10 feet away the whole time. The joyful rush of that long-overdue recognition sends you back into reality still keeping time to the beat of this exquisitely rhythmic minor masterpiece.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
6. Mary Burns, Fugitive (William K. Howard, 1935)
What’s it about?
Mary runs a coffee joint in the country while romancing out-of-town mystery man Babe Wilson. After a shootout at Mary’s shop, her gangster boyfriend leaves her to take the heat. Branded a “gun moll” and sent up to the big house, Mary escapes… by the grace of the cops who hope she’ll lead them to Wilson. Mary never wants to see him again—but he’s not through with her by a long shot. As the poor gal’s cellmate summarizes, “Aw, Mary. Men’ve been kickin’ dames around since the days of Eve.”
Why do I love it?
William K. Howard, whom James Wong Howe called the best director he ever worked with, was a poet of celluloid celerity. What I’ve seen of his early 1930s output practically lunges at you with its synergy of camera movements, brisk cutting, and tensely stylized compositions. All of those elements—along with a top-notch performance from Sylvia Sidney and a roller-coaster plot—make Mary Burns, Fugitive a gripping programmer both in style and substance.
From the bucolic opening scenes, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography imparts a sense of vague ethereality to what might’ve been a purely gritty yarn of crime and suffering. Sometimes that dreamlike, spiritual quality gives Mary’s torments a halo of martyrdom, but sometimes it’s just intoxicating to the eye. Particularly during the expressionistic prison break scene. Mary and her roommate sneak through corridors of stark shadows, dart through fog occasionally pierced by searchlights, then dive into the water and swim through shimmering waves towards their rendezvous. It’s like a crime melodrama evanescing into a dream.
Sylvia Sidney may have given more great performances in now-obscure 1930s movies than some bigger stars (and more acclaimed actors) gave in their whole careers. Her fey, childlike face and air of gentle sincerity made her a natural to play decent dames who fall, and fall hard, for rotten men. She hits her courtroom breakdown just right with ripped-from-the-headlines naturalism. Her voice rises to a pitchy wail and her face contorts into an unglamorous sob of confusion and shame. But Sidney usually communicates Mary’s sorrow quietly, with hushed agony. As life kicks her around, her suffering turns inward. But you can hear the stifled tears choking her. You can feel the jagged shards of broken dreams cutting ever deeper into her soul.
Alan Baxter, aided and abetted by clever lighting, strikes an appropriately loathsome note as Wilson. He doesn’t come off as particularly tough or charismatic, especially not next to hardboiled henchman Brian Donlevy, but he sure is mean. He resembles more of a snarky, entitled college kid than what I’d expect a bank robber to be like. As a casting and performance choice, it’s actually kind of brilliant, even if I don’t 100% buy it. Portrait of the gangster as a spoiled brat. (See? I don’t always root for the bad guys.) The moment when Mary realizes what Wilson is—punctuated by a noirish close-up of his suddenly defiant pretty-boy killer face—is chilling, because he does look like a different person than the carefree lover he was 5 minutes ago.
Mary’s final face-off with her bad-to-the-bone ex brings the film to a satisfying, Temple Drake-ish close. Wilson forces Mary to humiliate herself by fawning on him in front of her new love, but the gangster’s sadism proves his undoing. After shrinking from confrontation for so long, Mary seizes the moment and becomes the agent of her own justice, retribution, and freedom.
And I can’t finish this capsule without a nod to Melvyn Douglas’s Adirondack-style mountain lodge, which is truly the stuff of fantasies.
Where can you see it?
I caught it on TCM last summer. Maybe it’ll air again. It’s also floating around the internet…
7. Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937)
What’s it about?
In his first film appearance, Dr. Kildare helps a paroled mother find her missing daughter and escape the clutches of a lecherous racketeer. Does the doctor dare to call in his own underworld connections and save the day?
Why do I love it?
Perhaps the biggest hit of this year’s Capitolfest, Internes is exactly the kind of movie I’m thinking about when I lament “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.” That is, a gratifying 80-minute crime melodrama with hardly a dull moment. From its opening credits, overlaid on shots through the windshield of an ambulance speeding through city streets, this movie hooks you. And through a magical marriage of great acting and superior filmmaking craft, it never lets you go until the end credits roll. Clearly I need to dip more into the oeuvre of director Alfred Santell. He invests this bizarre tale of barroom surgery, sexual blackmail, grateful gangsters, and a missing daughter with muscular B-movie momentum while giving the tear-jerker scenes room to breathe.
I will never look at kitchen utensils the same way again after watching Joel McCrea improvise an operating room in a bar. “Get me a lime squeezer!” barks Dr. Kildare, preparing to save a hemorrhaging mobster with a MacGyver-esque assortment of found objects. One wonders, did the young doctor spend all his precious drinking time pondering, “How could I use that for surgery… you know, if it should ever come up?” Some contrivances are so much fun that you welcome them with open arms as contrivances. This is one of them.
McCrea in Boy Scout mode can wear thin on me, but his chemistry with Stanwyck lights up the screen. For instance, the physical contact of dressing an infected wound on her wrist becomes an unlikely but undeniably smoldering conduit of sexual tension. It’s also a wry inversion of that old ministering angel trope. How many times have we seen a battered tough guy melt as some radiant young beauty tends his wounds? But here it’s fresh-faced doctor McCrea tenderly succoring the downtrodden but unbroken Stanwyck.
Even with Kildare riding through the film like a knight errant in scrubs, Internes delves into dark territory. Degradation looms over Stanwyck as she deliberates whether to sell herself to a slimy, popcorn-munching racketeer in order to see her daughter again. German-born cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who’d shoot Among the Living and The Glass Key a few years later, cloaks the desperate ex-con mother in an aura of noirish desperation. Curtains of rain stream down the windows and cast shadowy waterfalls around Stanwyck as she pleads with the villain. No dice. He wants his payment in dollars or flesh. “You’d like to kill me, wouldn’t ya?” he gloats. “You’re a mind-reader,” she snaps back. As she contemplates her meager options, she watches the lights of a roaring elevated train go by outside the window of her dim, cramped apartment. The shot I recall most vividly from the film is a bleak slice of urban alienation. We see an abstracted misty street at night with glowing lamps and storefronts. A snack vendor, in silhouette, cooks popcorn over a whistling open flame. Stanwyck, in a shiny black raincoat, walks slowly past, then doubles back, and buys a bag of popcorn—the racketeer’s favorite—in a gesture of symbolic defeat. What an oddly wonderful movie.
Where can you see it?
I’m pleased to report that it’s available from the Universal Vault Series. Physical media for the win!
8. Quiet, Please: Murder (John Francis Larkin, 1942)
What’s it about?
Forger, thief, and murderer Fleg steals a rare Shakespeare folio and proceeds to sell several fake copies to collectors. Then Fleg’s lover and partner in crime, crooked manuscripts expert Myra, sells one of the phonies to a Nazi collaborator—who wants a payback in blood. Myra, a shady investigator, and Nazi henchmen all converge in the Los Angeles Public Library. Fleg impersonates a detective and holds everyone under blackout conditions while looting rare manuscripts and making mischief.
Why do I love it?
Slinky, sardonic criminals Gail Patrick and George Sanders come across as a pulpy, psychopathic variation on Nick and Nora Charles. (Or Joel and Garda Sloane, given their focus on manuscripts. But who the hell knows them?) Fleg and Myra swap urbane threats instead of cute quips and get their kicks from committing crimes instead of solving them. Double-crosses are perhaps the sincerest form of foreplay in their amoral universe. The more grandiloquent of the pair, Sanders purrs out some of the kinkiest dialogue this side of the Production Code: “You’re dangerous to my interests. And it excites me to play with my own life. The way we live is a constant threat to our security. But we love it—giving and taking pain.”
There’s a special place in my heart for movies with book-related skullduggery, and Sanders and Patrick’s sinister standoffs in the Public Library will delight anybody with a similar book fetish. The film doesn’t totally jell or live up to its potential, but I cannot hold trivial concerns like those against a movie that manages to mix such an exotic cocktail of bookish and lurid. Or one that leans so enthusiastically into nastiness. Even our nominal “hero,” a smarmy, unlikable investigator, delivers Myra to her death in a ruthless move that leaves us with nothing to cling to at the end but the Dewey Decimal System.
Director Larkin and DoP Joseph MacDonald endow this oddball B thriller, largely set in a fixed location, with plenty of angular shadows and darkly dramatic early noir atmosphere. Gail Patrick, resplendent in a sparkly tiara and evening gown, stalks among the stacks and lurks behind bookshelves. Lit from below by candlelight, a ghoulish George Sanders holds court by menacing his lover and two inconvenient witnesses with torture by harp string. The urban walk-of-doom ending even anticipates The Seventh Victim. Gail Patrick leaves the library and strides down eerily empty streets while trailed by a Nazi assassin. Spoiler: he gets her. Which is a shame really, because Myra and Fleg deserved another 2 or 3 movies in which to fleece rich book collectors, betray each other, and rack up their body count as a form of couples therapy.
Where can you see it?
It’s-nay on-ay Outube-yay. (At least as of this writing.)
9. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)
What’s it about?
After some light robbery and murder, Steve Morgan gets a ride from a tipsy traveling salesman and invites two hitchhiking dames they meet along the way. As the cops close in, the killer pressures his unwitting companions to take shelter at an isolated beach house. Sure, this is going to end well…
Why do I love it?
Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to that scary bastard Lawrence Tierney. After I watched this sick little movie, he invaded my nightmares and jolted me out of a wretched 8-month run of writer’s block. Call it an exorcism: I wrote almost 4,000 words about this Devil and haven’t stopped writing—mostly about noir—ever since.
The Devil Thumbs a Ride provides the key link in Tierney’s transition from old-school gangster in Dillinger to noir’s most depraved fantasy figure in Born to Kill. As it happens, Devil is so harrowingly good that it prompted me to revisit Born, which had failed to impress me around a decade ago. Turns out I adore it now. Few couples in noirdom can compete with Trevor and Tierney thirstily baiting and berating each other between illicit lip-locks. But if Robert Wise’s class-conscious A noir complicates Tierney as a kind of beast in captivity, Feist’s gleefully trashy 62-minute B noir unleashes him in a more natural habitat.
He gets to hit-and-run his way through a seedy, unhinged playground/obstacle course in a vehicle that seems bespoke to his ferocious dirtbag appeal. The confined spaces accentuate his hulking presence. There’s a tough dame to admire him—as one bullshit artist to another—and a starry-eyed nice girl for him to charm, then pulverize. The masculine cast of domesticated dorks, card-playing cops, trigger-happy patrolmen, and cartoonish yokels all serve to emphasize his steely, entertaining badness. In the midst of this chaos and opportunity, he’s more relaxed, funnier, and thus scarier when he goes in for the kiss or the kill. Which are similarly brutal in this movie.
Where can you see it?
An old TCM print is floating around ok.ru. Or you can get a Region 2 DVD. The Film Noir Foundation has restored it, but to see that version (I haven’t, alas) you’ll need to attend to a non-U.S. screening.
10. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)
What’s it about?
Eleanor Johnson’s husband witnesses a murder and hides out somewhere in San Francisco. The police want to bring him in, make him testify, and put his neck on the line. And gangsters want to kill him. Eleanor isn’t exactly crazy about the guy herself, but the more she learns about the tight spot her husband’s in, the more she wants to save him. A wisecracking reporter offers to help Eleanor find her hubby and stay ahead of the cops, but can she trust him?
Why do I love it?
Norman Foster evidently learned a thing or two from collaborating with Orson Welles, because this is a damn near perfect thriller. Think of it as a women’s drama reborn as a chase film in the key of Welles minor. Complete with canted angles, a darkly carnivalesque set piece, and oodles of slow-burning suspense.
My favorite subtype of noir centers on stand-up gals who pursue intensely personal investigations—quests, really—through dark labyrinths of danger and deceit. Or, to generalize, girl sleuth movies. Woman on the Run presents us with a most unusual “girl sleuth” variant, in that there is nothing girlish about her at all. On the contrary, she’s a prickly, childless wife in a burnt-out marriage. Shorn of her bombshell locks and sporting an unsexy assortment of bulky coats and dresses, Ann Sheridan nails the bone-tired air of a woman who’s had the romance worn right out of her.
Compared to girl sleuths like winsome secretary Ella Raines, earthy nighthawk Susan Hayward, and streetwise knockout Lucille Ball, Sheridan cuts a dramatically less hopeful and glamorous figure. Even June Vincent in Black Angel passionately throws herself into the glitzy nightclub demimonde to save her husband’s neck; her determination and energy are unwavering. By contrast, Sheridan is sick to death of almost everybody except her dog. The story works because you sort of believe that she might give up on her husband. You know, if she got too tired or ran out of cigarettes.
I like to think of noir’s girl sleuth movies as twisted fairy tales that confront the heroines with riddles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Woman on the Run, we even get a devastatingly charming wolf in disguise and a life-giving potion: the ampoules of heart medicine that Eleanor needs to smuggle to her husband. Eleanor’s quest takes the form of a life-or-death scavenger hunt bound up with the enigma of her bitter, failing marriage. That unrealistic conceit results in one of the more nuanced and narratively creative depictions of a troubled marriage in film noir.
Instead of watching a marriage fall apart from beginning to end or through flashbacks, we acquire more haunting insight into Eleanor’s troubled relationship with her husband through his absence. We never see the couple interact in person until the very end. Instead, their story comes to us through fragmented clues. A cryptic letter. A dirty apartment with a cramped kitchen and cupboards full of nothing but dog food. The scornful head of a mannequin. Paintings and sketches that chart the trajectory of a promising but unfocused career circling the drain. The short story-like anecdotes that Eleanor recounts and tries to decode in an attempt to figure out where her husband first “lost” her. This is couples therapy as a puzzle box, an apt fusion of noir’s penchant for jigsaw narratives and the snarled messes of resentment that long-term relationships can become.
A movie about second chances on the edge of an abyss, Woman on the Run stands as a reminder that toughness and tenderness often intertwine in noir. David Bordwell recently pointed a finger at the “cult of noir” for making us underrate gentler genres—especially cozy family sagas—in favor of forceful, action-oriented movies. (Touché, I guess? Look at this list…) Now, I’m not going to make the case that film noir is actually warm and fuzzy. God forbid. But what of the world-weary, wised-up, bittersweet brand of tenderness that belongs to noir? Out of the Past leaves us on a note of melancholy affection beyond the grave. Shadow of a Doubt is the dark double of Meet Me in St. Louis. Inscrutable and laconic though they often were, Lake and Ladd clicked as a screen couple largely because of their moments of surprising tenderness and vulnerability.
Like Raymond Chandler wrote, in a letter reflecting on his wife’s death, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Some tough dames are too. And so it is with Woman on the Run. As this rueful wife scours the city of San Francisco, she summons up her memories of marriage and discovers, almost too late, how much tenderness she still harbors for her imperiled dreamer of a husband.
Where can you see it?
The FNF/UCLA restoration is available on DVD/Blu from Flicker Alley. It also shows up on TCM occasionally; it was my favorite Noir Alley discovery of last year. For the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT watch one of the murky prints circulating on YouTube, etc. I tried to watch it that way years ago and couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes in.
11. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)
What’s it about?
A witchy fox-loving peasant girl in turn-of-the-century Shopshire vacillates between repulsion and attraction to the fox-hunting local squire. Which complicates things after she weds the chaste new vicar. Sure, it sounds banal, but it is really a poem woven around the titillating tropes of a tawdry romance novel.
Why do I love it?
Because it may be Technicolor’s finest hour. I had procrastinated seeing this one for a while, and that paid off because I had the privilege of seeing it at the Nitrate Picture Show. There were colors I have never seen before. Colors stolen from some fairy realm or—same difference—from the mind of the film’s whimsical heroine, a woman clearly tuned to a higher frequency. The limpid blues, torrid yellows, and rosy but forbidding pinks of Shropshire skies. The dusky cobalt of Jennifer Jones’s skirt as she casts a midnight spell. The amber glow of a sunset on fox fur. The look of white lace in the bare afternoon sunlight.
And is there any cinematic image of lost innocence more heartbreaking yet erotic than Jones standing tiptoe on grass, only to be scooped up by squire Farrar—who crushes her dropped bouquet of scarlet flowers with his shiny brown boots?
Where can you see it?
It’s on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
12. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)
What’s it about?
A bounty hunter reluctantly joins forces with a prospector and a caddish cavalry officer to bring a killer and his girl accomplice back to civilization. But can the captors hold it together as the desperado attempts to divide and conquer?
Why do I love it?
Bumpy road trips with charismatic killers make for great cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Here it’s wily outlaw Robert Ryan toying with the nerves, egos, and lives of his traveling companions. Not unlike Tierney in Devil, Ryan infuses this bad hombre with such virile, animalistic arrogance that it’s almost impossible to look at anything else when he’s onscreen. But Ryan’s Ben Vandergroat is a more complex beast, with an emotional range from cringing self-pity to lustful jubilation; even three tough men on high alert can’t keep this scruffy, protean trickster down for long.
I’m fascinated by intimidating performances that involve some kind of physical limitation, like noir’s wounded gangsters who can conjure even more menace when hiding out or hospitalized. Similarly, Ryan projects such power and mastery over the situation even when tied up and thrown around like a sack of potatoes that you know you’re in the presence of one dangerous dude. Dig the way that, never so smarmy but in defeat, he pulls his own wanted poster out of his pocket with his teeth, then grins with the knowledge that he has shot his pursuer’s plans to hell. Or the cocky glances he flashes towards his fellow travelers as Janet Leigh gives him a shave or a back rub, as if to say “Don’t you wish you were in my filthy hide right now?” Or how he smirkingly tells his rambling hard-knocks life story while feverish Jimmy Stewart slips further, further, further on his sabotaged saddle and topples off his horse.
Leathery, damaged, and volatile, the Jimmy Stewart of Anthony Mann’s gritty Westerns has become my favorite Jimmy Stewart. And yet, listen to the yearning tenderness in his voice when he talks to Janet Leigh about nursing cattle through the winter. More than any man who ever graced the screen, Stewart made the prospect of settling down seem like another warm, romantic adventure rather than an end to it. (Me, I probably rather go ride-or-die with Ryan, but I can appreciate a good pitch when I hear one.) I have to hand it to Janet Leigh too. She could very easily have been merely another item thrown on the scale of the film’s high stakes: death, money, and the woman. With her delicate features accentuated by cropped hair and men’s clothes, she’s a wildcat-fierce slip of a thing who can hold her own against Stewart and his posse. And yet she captures that lost-girl devotion to father figure Ryan, devotion so intense that she refuses to see how he sees her.
Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor envelops almost every shot in breathtaking Technicolor vistas of rugged natural splendor. This pure, epic scenery provides an ironic backdrop for Ryan’s machinations. We get the mythic West of storybook illustrations wrapped around Mann’s sordid West of cheap life and dirty death.
Hello, Creeps! (If I may borrow Peter Lorre’s Creeps by Night catchphrase…) This is an old movie blog that occasionally flirts with radio. But this year I decided to do something different. Why not combine my two vintage passions into one spooktacular post?
For each day of October, I’m featuring a related pairing: a classic scary movie and an old-time radio episode. That way I can dispense Halloween horror movie recommendations and share my spooky OTR faves at the same time.
Each radio-film pairing will have a theme. Many selections share source material or deploy a cherished plot trope, like evil twins or mad scientists. More creative combinations might highlight crossover stars, unusual structures, motifs, or even vaguely similar atmospheres.
For this Fear You Can Hear list, I tried to strike a balance between episodes I’ve featured before (the scariest of the scariest) and some new ones. I hope you find at least few that you’ve never listened to before.
To mix up the format, I’m adding a new radio-film paring, advent-style, day by day, until Halloween. (Don’t worry! I have my full list of 31 pairings picked out.) Pleasant dreams, hmmm?
1. The Blood Is the Life
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) “Dracula” from The Mercury Theater (Aired July 11, 1938)
Let’s start with 2 classic interpretations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. An unauthorized adaptation barely saved from the flames of legally-mandated destruction, Murnau’s Nosferatu remains the scariest film version of novel—complete with plague-carrying rats, ghostly negative-footage forests, and Max Schreck as the most repellent vampire in cinema history. Orson Welles’s radio adaptation, starring himself as the Count (naturally), is enough to give you goosebumps too. The things that radio could get away describing were often far gorier and kinkier that movies could show…
The Monster (Roland West, 1925) “The Kettler Method” from Suspense (Aired September 16, 1942)
Mad scientists run amok in this radio-film double feature. Alternately playing the affable host and snarling like a rabid dog, Lon Chaney seems to be having a grand old time as the demented Doctor Ziska in The Monster. To the surprise of no one, the good doctor has grisly plans for any soul unfortunate enough to stumble upon his old dark sanitarium on a stormy night. From the long-running prestige radio program Suspense, “The Kettler Method” dramatizes a similar scenario of fearful experiments in a secluded asylum. Warning: If you have a doctor appointment in the near future, you might want to skip today’s pairing!
The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925) “Ball Paris Macabre” from Lights Out (Aired March 9, 1943)
Paris may seem romantic, but just you try walking home after midnight! Even busy streets fall silent, as if the locals want to avoid the ghosts that rove the streets. There’s something inherently menacing about such a historically blood-soaked city. As the red-robed Phantom of the Opera declares to masked revelers, “Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men—thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!” The spectacular, never-surpassed silent adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel is a must-watch for me each Halloween season. Lon Chaney’s face launched at least a thousand nightmares.
“Paris Ball Macabre” also evokes the city’s dark, haunted ambiance with a masquerade ball. In this Lights Out ghost story, two cocky American college boys score tickets to a very strange party. The nature of the somber, oddly-dressed dancers probably won’t shock you, especially if you’ve heard of the 18th century bals des victimes. However, the dramatic irony climaxes beautifully as our clueless dudes’ annoying patter succumbs to abject terror.
The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926) “Narrative About Clarence” from Suspense (Aired March 16, 1944)
In Rex Ingram’s silent thriller, loosely based on the exploits of Aleister Crowley, a beautiful sculptress falls under the spell of a sinister hypnotist (Paul Wegener of The Golem). With a wild fantasy sequence of debauched pagan revels and a climactic set piece in a spooky tower fortress, this underseen gem deserves to be better known among classic horror fans. (And keep an eye out for young Michael Powell, the film’s assistant director, as a man with a balloon in the carnival sequence.)
Laird Cregar plays another hypnotist with dastardly plans in Suspense’s chilling “Narrative About Clarence.” Cregar’s lulling, cultured voice has never been used to such terrifying effect. Without giving too much away, I’ll note that, whereas classic horror movies usually end with the triumph of good over evil, radio was often more pessimistic.
The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927) “The Marvelous Barastro,” from Suspense (Aired April 13, 1944)
In this radio-film paring, jealousy, passion, and false identity all intertwine in carnivalesque settings. As a teenager, Tod Browning ran away to join a circus. His life among the carnies would later infuse the films he directed and fuel his obsession with his outsiders and anomalies, both physical and psychological. With its seedy carnival milieu and freakish body horror, The Unknown is peak Browning. Lon Chaney gives one of the most intense screen performances (and that’s saying something!) as a criminal pretending to be an armless knife-thrower in a circus. What extremes will he go to in order to hide his identity from the woman he loves? Well, those extremes are pretty… extreme. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
The horror in “The Marvelous Barastro,” based on a story by the great Ben Hecht, is subtler but no less devastating. Orson Welles brings gravitas and controlled fury to the role of a carnival magician seeking to kill the man who stole his identity for a depraved purpose.
Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932) “Carmilla” from Columbia Workshop (Aired on July 28, 1940)
These two adaptations of Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s influential novel about a female vampire, share a melancholy, nightmarish ambiance. Dreyer’s Vampyr spins a web of dread from mists, shadows that take on a life of their own, and the tormented performance of Sybille Schmitz. Columbia Workshop’s rendition is a less ambiguous but still haunting brew of deadly nightshade, broody piano music, and the sensual malice voiced by Jeanette Nolan.
White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) “The Warning” from The Weird Circle (Aired in the 1940s)
Stalky rejected suitors are the all-too-plausible monsters in these fantastic stories of the walking dead. Sure, Bela Lugosi is super-creepy in White Zombie as a lecherous bokor, or zombie-making Voodoo sorcerer. But he’s tied for loathsomeness with the heroine’s “friend” who wants to turn her into a zombie rather than see her marry somebody else. “The Warning” features a similar motive for occult villainy. A spurned landowner devises an elaborate plan to lure the object of his desire towards his secluded castle, guarded by enslaved dead men.
(Shoutout to Awake at Midnight for making me aware of this excellent episode from an often lackluster series.)
Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1933) “A Night in the Waxworks” from Beyond Midnight (Aired January 31, 1969)
Wax museums are scary. This is not up for debate. Radio and cinema have milked the motif of wax museums for all they’re worth, and here are two of the finest examples. In Mystery of the Wax Museum, a brassy lady reporter investigates the striking resemblance between figures in a new wax museum and people who’ve recently died under suspicious circumstances. While I also love the Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax, this earlier Warner Brothers version gives us Fay Wray shrieking, Glenda Farrell hunting down baddies, and a ghoulish two-color Technicolor palette of fleshy pinks, lurid corals, and sickly greens. In “A Night in the Waxworks,” a cocky reporter must steel his nerves when he bets he can spend a night among the murderers in a famous wax museum. But they’re just inanimate figures. They can’t do any harm… or can they?
The Black Cat (Edgar Ulmer, 1934) “Angel of Death” from Nightfall (Aired on February 11, 1983)
“Are we not the living dead?” So speaks Karloff to Lugosi in The Black Cat, referring to their shared trauma inflicted by the horrors of World War I. This lurid revenge melodrama, with its gallery of embalmed wives, Satanic rituals, and stark Bauhaus Gothic art direction, is surely one of the darkest and most twisted movies ever produced by classic Hollywood. (It’s also my favorite film. I wrote a bit more about it here.) By contrast, “Angel of Death” is a fairly subdued episode for the no-holds-barred Canadian horror series Nightfall. Yet, it has managed on multiple occasions to send a shiver up my spine with its eerie premonitions and evocations of the Great War’s maddening carnage. After learning that her brother has been killed in action, a young girl begins to have visions of his return. Has the spirit of her brother come home? Or is she hallucinating like her long-dead mother, who insisted that the Angel of Death had taken up residence in the attic?
The Crime of Doctor Crespi (John H. Auer, 1935) “Final Resting Place” from Macabre (Aired in 1961)
If you suffer from severe claustrophobia, you might want to avoid tonight’s radio-film double feature. In the short and squirmy shoestring-budget thriller The Crime of Doctor Crespi, deliciously maniacal doctor Erich von Stroheim conspires to have his romantic rival buried alive. Universal horror fans will enjoy seeing Dwight “Renfield” Frye play the good guy for once. In “Final Resting Place,” a cash-strapped young bridegroom agrees to be buried alive for a lucrative carnival stunt. He’ll certainly earn his money’s worth. Both the movie and the radio episode vividly recreate the panicked, helpless perspective of a man sealed in a coffin.
Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935) “The Horla” from Mystery in the Air (Aired on August 21, 1947)
Whether on film or radio, classic horror offers few pleasures to equal an incandescent Peter Lorre freakout. The great actor could be lovable or despicable, funny or tragic, but I most admire the way he could fearlessly rip into a nervous breakdown. In the rampantly perverse Mad Love, gifted surgeon Lorre lusts after a Grand Guignol actress and hatches an elaborate scheme to drive her husband mad after a hand transplant. That said, her husband is Colin Clive, so he was never really too far from the edge. And it doesn’t help that hubby’s new hands came from a guillotined murderer. (Creepy side note: Clive died 2 years after Mad Love, and Lorre was one of his pallbearers.)
“The Horla,” adapted from Maupassant’s hauntingly ambiguous tale, finds Lorre fretting over an invisible being that he insists is trying to dominate him, body and soul. Needless to say, both plots in today’s program conclude with our Peter erupting into spectacularly entertaining hysterics. In the radio episode, he continues his theatrics even after the end of the story, leaving the audience to wonder if the star had finally snapped!
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) “Cat Wife” from Lights Out (Aired on April 6, 1938)
Note: The 1938 broadcast of “Cat Wife” was a repeat of a script that originally aired in 1936. I chose this version because Boris Karloff plays the husband.
It’s my suspicion that we can indirectly thank “Cat Wife” for the existence of Cat People—written to fit an audience-tested title that RKO provided to Val Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen. Why did such a goofy horror title test well? Possibly because “Cat Wife” had been a hit on Lights Out a few years prior. In this episode, Boris Karloff’s vituperative rebukes and heartrending lamentations add class to the gory and fundamentally silly tale of a no-good wife who transforms into a feline after her husband compares her to an alley cat. By contrast, Cat People is a noirish masterpiece of elegant psychological horror. Rather than grossing us out with gouged eyes and bloody carcasses, Tourneur and Lewton’s film scares us by invoking the primal urges that rattle the not-so-escape-proof cages of our rational minds.
La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943) “The Fall of Gentryville” from CBS Mystery Radio Theater (Aired on March 5, 1979)
No film about selling your soul to the devil ever felt quite so damned as La Main du Diable. The story is basically a variation of Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp.” Loser artist Roland Brissot buys a cursed hand that endows him with extraordinary talent. The catch? He has to sell it before he dies—or spend all eternity in the inferno. Made for a German-controlled company during the Vichy regime, this supernatural tragedy’s devouring guilt reflects not only the protagonist’s fictional sins, but also the real-life devil’s bargain that spawned the film. You can read the crushing dread and the self-loathing humor of the damned in Tourneur’s florid shadows and Pierre Fresnay’s wild-eyed performance.
In “The Fall of Gentryville,” puzzled reporters try to find out what happened to a little town that vanished without a trace, as if the ground swallowed it up. The only surviving resident, a traumatized young woman, unravels a horrifying tale of temptation and betrayal. This episode takes its time building atmosphere, but works up to a shocking fever pitch of visceral terror that’s all too plausible. It may be the darkest tale ever told on the long-running CBS Mystery Radio Theater series.
The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943) “The Man in Black” from The Hall of Fantasy (Aired on July 6, 1953)
Tonight’s film and radio program both conjure up that sense of being pursued in a nightmare, of trying to outrun a shapeshifting threat that lurks behind every corner. In Val Lewton-produced thriller The Seventh Victim, a young girl goes in search of her beautiful but troubled sister and stumbles onto a malevolent cult. “The Man in Black” comes from the typically excellent series The Hall of Fantasy, which seemed to specialize in get-under-your-skin ambiance and shocking endings. In this episode, two friends out on a nighttime walk meet a woman gibbering about a dangerous man in black. When they make the mistake of trying to solve the mystery, the pair find themselves menaced by a shadowy supernatural being.
The Undying Monster (John Brahm, 1942) “Taboo” from Escape (Aired December 3, 1947)
In tonight’s frightful double-feature, werewolves are less tragic heroes (like poor Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man) and more mysterious, bloodthirsty killers to be unmasked. “Taboo,” a Geoffrey Household adaptation from the exciting “high adventure” series Escape, centers on a pair of hunters as they set a trap to catch the human beast responsible for a series of disappearances in the Carpathian mountains. The Undying Monster clocks in at just over an hour, yet John Brahm fills this underrated 1940s chiller with enough mist and fear and Gothic secrecy to satisfy the most diehard classic horror fans. In this odd mixture of early forensic science and supernatural terror, a detective and his comic assistant investigate the legendary werewolf of Hammond Hall after the family heir and a village girl are violently mauled.
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944) “The Stranger in the House” from The Mysterious Traveler (Aired on January 29, 1952)
I like my ghosts malevolent (in fiction at least!), and the manipulative female specters haunting picturesque houses in tonight’s double feature certainly fit the bill. Without giving too much away, I’ll just note that endings of the two similar ghost stories differ greatly in terms of cheeriness.
In “The Stranger in the House,” a young wife suspects that her husband is falling in love with the spirit of a murderess who haunts their historic Vermont home. Can she break the spell before it’s too late? On the melancholy Cornish coast of The Uninvited, another dream house lures out-of-towners into peril and a web of deadly secrets. Lovable siblings Rod and Pamela buy the old Meredith place only to find that it’s filled with baleful cold spots and sobbing in the night. The house also calls to the daughter of its previous owner, the dreamy, sheltered Stella, who senses the spirit of her mother lingering in the house. But does the house really welcome Stella… or does it want to destroy her? And why?
Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945) “Fall of the House of Usher” from Escape (Aired on October 22, 1947)
Okay, so I already did a double-feature about being buried alive. But that program (day 10) had a gritty modern flavor, whereas tonight’s radio-film pairing takes the trope back to its ghastly Gothic heyday in horror. Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” could’ve been written for radio, given the vividness of its language and the narrative importance of sound. Escape’s adaptation amplifies the tale’s darkest overtones, emphasizing Roderick Usher’s creepy, incestuous obsession with his sister and making her entombment seem less of an accident and more of a premeditated coverup.
In underrated Val Lewton horror Isle of the Dead, a mismatched cast of characters find themselves trapped by quarantine on a Greek island during the Balkan Wars of 1912. As a plague claims more and more lives, superstitious paranoia threatens to destroy an innocent woman accused of being a parasitic demon. Believe me, even if you think you know where this movie is going, you still have a few scares in store. And if you don’t believe me, believe Martin Scorsese, who lists Isle of the Dead as one of the scariest films ever.
Dead of Night (Various directors but it’s Cavalcanti’s show, 1945) “The House in Cypress Canyon” from Suspense (Aired on December 5, 1946)
Dead of Night is a British anthology horror film about a group of people at a country house telling ghostly tales, varying in tone and content from the quaintly funny to the unforgettably disturbing. In “The House in Cypress Canyon,” one of Suspense’s strangest and spookiest episodes, a happy couple discover that a closet in their newly-built little house harbors an otherworldly and infectious evil.
So… what do these two have in common? Without veering into spoiler territory, let me say that both the film and the radio episode add to their uncanny impact with recursive endings. The way they loop in upon themselves proves that the mindf*ck, so beloved of modern horror and thriller movies, is by no means a new experience.
Until Dead of Night gets a legit U.S. DVD or Blu (not counting collector’s items that cost a a third of your paycheck), you can watch it here.
19. “Sure, I’ll Marry Vincent Price. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”
Dragonwyck (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1946) “Fugue in C Minor” from Suspense (Rehearsal from June 1, 1944)
I truly sympathize with the heroines of these horror-infused Gothic romances. On the one hand, the man they love is probably evil. On the other hand, he’s played by Vincent Price. Marrying a moody man with a track record of mysteriously dead wives is the relationship equivalent of wandering into a graveyard at midnight in a slasher movie. However, with his Renaissance angel profile and seductively cultured bearing, Price made audiences wonder whether becoming Bluebeard’s eighth wife might not be worth the trouble.
Radio suspense mastermind Lucille Fletcher penned the deliciously creepy “Fugue in C Minor” for Suspense. Impressionable Victorian maiden Ida Lupino falls (understandably) for recently widowed Vincent Price after he passionately serenades her on his pipe organ.
Maybe she should’ve listened to his two children who claim that their mother is buried among the pipes of that organ. Kind of a red flag, you know? In Dragonwyck, based on the Anya Seaton novel, sparks fly when imaginative farm girl Gene Tierney travels to Price’s haunted castle on the Hudson River to serve as his daughter’s governess. How convenient that his wife happens to drop dead soon after…
Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947) “Dime a Dance” from Suspense (Aired on January 13, 1944)
In both “Dime a Dance” and Lured, Lucille Ball plays a wisecracking taxi dancer who decides to do some sleuthing after her gal pal ends up dead. There’s a serial killer on the loose—and if she doesn’t catch him, she might turn out to be his next victim. Now, you could argue that neither the radio episode nor the film represents true horror. They’re more typically categorized as noirish mysteries or thrillers. However, the serial killer has become such a time-tested staple of modern horror that I wanted to include “Dime a Dance” and Lured on this list and acknowledge them as 1940s forerunners of giallo and slasher flicks.
Given the limitations imposed by censorship, it’s impressive just how much perversity this double feature manages to suggest. The radio episode, based on a Cornell Woolrich story, dwells on the murderer’s twisted post-mortem ritual. Lured amps up its horror credentials with a marvelously unhinged Boris Karloff performance and allusions to Charles Baudelaire’s poems about beauty enhanced by death.
The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
“Northern Lights” from Quiet, Please (Aired on January 30, 1949)
A snowbound research base. Puzzled scientists. An extraterrestrial intelligence unleashed upon mankind. Those elements link tonight’s radio-film double feature. “Northern Lights” delivers one of radio’s most far-out premises, complete with singing caterpillars, time travel, alternate dimensions, and interplanetary imperialism. Despite the outlandishness of its plot, this Quiet, Please fan favorite strikes just the right note of cosmic terror and offers quite a few shivery moments, thanks to the inspired voice work of Ernest Chappell. By contrast, creature feature The Thing from Another World tackles the threat of alien interference with a never-a-dull-moment combo of action and suspense, enhanced by the isolation of its setting. Listen, my friends… then keep watching the skies.
The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) “The Good Die Young” from The Mysterious Traveler (Aired on February 27, 1944)
I hope you’re ready to babysit two of the nastiest young ladies in classic horror! After all, where would the genre be without evil kids, hiding diabolical schemes behind angelic faces? In both the radio episode and the film, our bratty anti-heroines exude a cloying sweetness—when they want something—that only accentuates their rottenness.
Since “The Good Die Young” aired in 1944, one wonders if it might’ve influenced William Marsh to write his novel The Bad Seed, quickly adapted for Broadway and then Hollywood. However, whereas the wicked stepdaughter in “The Good Die Young” inspires only loathing and annoyance, it’s difficult (for me at least) not to admire Patty McCormack’s fierce Rhoda Penmark just a little bit, if only for her sheer nerve and determination.
Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) “Casting the Runes” from Escape (Aired on November 19, 1947)
M. R. James is my favorite horror writer. His tales blend erudition and a stodgy academic flavor with expertly-paced suspense and traumatic glimpses of gore and ghouls. (“Lost Hearts” scarred me for life when I was a kid, but that’s neither here nor there.) In “Casting the Runes,” we meet every journal editor’s worst nightmare: Mr. Karswell, a man who takes rejection so badly that he’ll go to drastic lengths to slake his thirst for revenge. And conjure up demons. And delight in toying with his victims by sending them all sorts of supernatural terrors as part of a death-day countdown.
Night of the Demon takes the central premise of the short story—a vengeful occultist who kills via runic symbols on a scrap of paper—and embellishes it with all manner of eccentric and frightening detours. Tourneur’s noirish bravura style builds vague unease throughout, making us feel perpetually disoriented and uncertain. The result is a zigzagging thriller that explores the limits of reason and forces us to confront the tenebrous enormity of what we don’t know. (Just ignore the silly rubber and/or papier mâché demon.)
Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960) “The Vengeful Corpse” from Inner Sanctum (Aired on September 12, 1949)
The reputation of Inner Sanctum rests more on the sneering, pun-happy intros of its host Raymond than the content of its stories. The show specialized in pulpy crime yarns with high body counts. While plotlines often evoked the supernatural, they tended to pull a Scooby Doo at the last minute and unmask humans with elaborate M.O.s. But you’ll get no such cop-out ending in “The Vengeful Corpse,” the grim tale of a young woman possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch who’s out for blood. This standout episode pulls no punches.
Scream queen Barbara Steele plays another persecuted witch who returns from the grave to seek revenge in Black Sunday. Mario Bava’s first credited film as director stands as one of the great masterpieces of Gothic horror.
The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) “Ghost Hunt” from Suspense (Aired on June 23, 1949)
One of Suspense’s most creative and influential episodes, “Ghost Hunt” anticipates the found footage horror subgenre with some deeply disturbing found audio. A cocky radio host decides treat his listeners to a broadcast from a haunted house. The recording survives… but he’s not so lucky. An excellent example of just how terrifying potent atmosphere and spellbinding acting can be sans gore, The Haunting is arguably the greatest film about a paranormal investigation.
The Haunted Palace (Roger Corman, 1963) “The Devil Doctor” from The Witch’s Tale (Aired on January 8, 1934)
Don’t you just hate it when you move into a house and find out that it was once the lair of a depraved sorcerer from another century who’s been biding his time and plotting a return to prey upon the living? That relatable scenario anchors tonight’s double feature. “The Devil Doctor” is a delicious entry in radio’s first horror anthology series, The Witch’s Tale. The full-blooded Gothic language makes this episode memorable—particularly the description of the warlock’s portrait—along with a rip-roaring damsel in distress finale. In The Haunted Palace, the scariest of Corman’s Poe cycle (there’s a lot of Lovecraft at work here too), Vincent Price plays the affable heir to a castle who’s being gradually possessed by his warlock ancestor. Price relished the campy, overwrought antics of many 1960s period horror flicks, but he’s dead serious in this one, delivering one of his most spine-tingling performances.
Let’s just say you can find The Haunted Palace online if you’re looking for it…
26. Fever Dreams
Kill, Baby, Kill! (Mario Bava, 1966) “A Ring of Roses” from CBS Mystery Radio Theater (Aired on January 18, 1974)
Don’t try too hard to decode the hallucinatory, winding plots of tonight’s radio episode and film, both of which center on little girl ghosts that bring tragedy to those who encounter them. “A Ring of Roses” is a nightmare of hazy weirdness. There’s a twisted mother daughter relationship, rambling discussions about the material causes of paranormal phenomena, a cursed ring, a horrifying reenactment of corporal punishment, and a clueless couple stumbling through it all. Clunky? Well, a little. But the uniqueness and ambiguity of the tale have haunted me ever since I first listened to it. Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill! is more of a classic ghost story. Yet, its color palette of neutrals punctuated with eerie jewel tones, convoluted spiritualism, and the comparative uselessness of our apparent hero all conspire to throw us off balance. It’s one of my top 5 favorite horror films of all time.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971) “Whence Came You?” from Quiet, Please (Aired on February 16, 1948)
Bewitching lady mummies lure archaeologists to their doom in tonight’s radio-film pairing. “Whence Came You?” eschews the tired tropes of a classic mummy movie (curses! extensive flashbacks! forbidden love across the centuries!) in favor of slow-burning unease that culminates in claustrophobic—and cosmic—terror. In Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, an archaeologist discovers the tomb of a powerful priestess. Years later, his beautiful daughter falls under the influence of the mummy’s spirit and uses her powers to wreak revenge. It’s one of Hammer’s best films, boasting a high body count, a compellingly mystical ambiance, and a darkly scorchingly performance from Valerie Leon.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971) “The Yellow Wallpaper” from Suspense (Aired on July 29, 1948)
Tonight’s double feature of psychological horror centers on women coping with mental illness. Are the strange things that they hear and see mere phantoms of their troubled minds… or is there really some supernatural presence at work?
I think Agnes Moorehead gave her finest Suspense performance in this mesmerizing adaptation of the “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tale of a woman confined by her husband for unspecified reasons. Cut off from a normal existence and patronized by her jailer-spouse, the narrator begins to detect something moving behind the ornate wallpaper of her room…
As the horror genre was poised to explore new heights of graphic imagery and gore in 1970s, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death took a different approach to wriggle under your skin. Nothing can quite match its ambiance of crisp autumnal New England creepiness wedded to strung-out bohemian disillusionment. Recently released from an asylum, Jessica settles in a house with a quaint apple orchard. She doesn’t tell her husband and their hippie friend about the beckoning apparition she sees on the property. When a mysterious drifter chick seems to bring division and all manner of spookiness, Jessica must fight for her life while struggling to hold on to her sanity.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (John Newland, 1973) “The Shadow People” from The Hall of Fantasy (Aired on September 5, 1952)
You might find yourself sleeping with the lights on and stockpiling candles after tonight’s double feature of things that go bump in the night. “The Shadow People” may be the most disturbing story from The Hall of Fantasy and that’s saying something. Shadows lurk in every corner of our everyday lives. Darkness is inescapable, and so are the monsters here. In this episode, a vicious horde of spectral beings set out to destroy a young woman. They can only attack in darkness. However, it may not be so easy to stay in the light.
In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, one of the creepiest made-for-TV movies ever, a young wife makes the fatal decision to unseal a stopped-up fireplace in her new home. Little does she know that she’s unleashed a gang of demons who want to make her one of them. Again, they can only come for her in the darkness. But night must fall…
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) “Poltergeist” from Lights Out (Aired on December 16, 1936)
Never disrespect the dead. Especially not when a winter wind blows and you have nowhere to escape to… In “Poltergeist,” three silly coworkers on Christmas vacation unwittingly dance on a grave and summon a murderous spirit. Stephen King has discussed his fondness for horror radio while growing up, so it wouldn’t surprise me if this Arch Oboler story of desecration and snowbound terror influenced The Shining. After all, isn’t it the story of a cursed place where arrogant revelers dared to dance over an ancient burial ground—and summoned all manner of horrors? And there are certain parallels between the frozen fates of Jack Torrance and the hapless heroines of “Poltergeist.”
So many movies to recommend, so little time!FilmStruck—the arthouse streaming platform brought to you by TCM and the Criterion Collection—recently added a whole bunch of old Hollywood movies.
Subscribers can now satisfy the urge to watch Casablanca (or The Thin Man) virtually any time, anywhere. But you can do more than just round up the usual suspects. As the exclusive streaming home of Warner Brothers’ classic library, FilmStruck offers a tantalizing and eclectic variety of studio-era movies beyond that hit parade.
However, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, FilmStruck might leave you feeling a little film… stuck (sorry not sorry). Especially since not all of the classic Hollywood movies in the FilmStuck streaming library show up under the Classic Hollywood category.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to create a series of guides or primers to the movies I love within FilmStruck’s ever-growing catalog. I’m starting with classic Hollywood, but I see a list about classic British movies on FilmStruck in my future…
For today, I’ve tried to skew this list of recommendations towards weird, lesser-known, and/or not-on-DVD classics. And, remember, you can watch them right now.
What’s it about? An insufferable hypochondriac millionaire and his lovelorn nurse travel to a banana republic where they get mixed up in a coup d’état.
Why should you watch it? Harold Lloyd was hilarious and versatile. His spectacles stayed the same, but his character changed. He could be a bashful country boy, a campus dork, or an urban go-getter. But I’d say he’s at his funniest and most interesting playing a cocky spoiled brat who wins us over with his staggering moxie, like he does in Why Worry? Over the course of this rip-roaring comedy, the poor little rich boy sheds his selfishness, and that character arc lends emotional weight to an expertly paced succession of gags.
Frequent Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston gets to do even more than usual. You’ll chuckle at her running around in tight pants and a sombrero, then root for her as she unleashes the fiery rebuke that prompts our hero’s transformation. The exotic location, loathsome villain, and unique comedy sequences (Pulling a tooth from a giant! Fighting off an army with smoke and mirrors!) combine to produce one of Lloyd’s very best.
What’s it about? Shipwreck survivors wash up on a secluded tropical island where the wicked General Zaroff hunts humans.
Why should you watch it? Shot simultaneously with King Kong on the same RKO jungle sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a scarier, leaner horror-adventure hybrid. Director Irving Pichel manages to revel in the pulpy, morbid side of the material and keep the plot zooming forward with the velocity and inevitability of a bullet from General Zaroff’s rifle.
Leslie Banks rips into his bad guy role with diabolical relish. His over-the-top Grand Guignol performance, slavering with thirst for blood and Fay Wray, sets a standard for every comic book villain to come.
(Fun fact: The pack of Great Danes you see in The Most Dangerous Game were owned by Why Worry? star Harold Lloyd!)
What’s it about? The tempestuous lives of three schoolmates intertwine during the Great Depression. Restless Vivian marries well but plunges into poverty and addiction. Fun-loving, warm-hearted Mary rebuilds her life after prison. Studious Ruth tries to help and support them both.
Why should you watch it? If you want to know what “pre-Code” means, this is a good movie to explain it. The plot revolves around sex, drugs, gangsters (including a young Bogie!), gambling, prison, child neglect, and suicide. Three on a Match wades unflinchingly into content that would’ve been excised just a few years later. Ann Dvorak’s gutsy descent from bored socialite into grimy, coke-addled mob captive is the stuff of legend, a show-stopping, career-defining performance. Her shriek of abject terror in the lipstick scene will ring in your ears long after the movie ends.
On top of the fast and furious personal melodrama, Three on a Match chronicles the whole Prohibition era with newsreel-like interludes of headlines, hit tunes, and stock footage. As we watch Vivian, Mary, and Ruth choose their paths in life, we watch the 20th century come of age and wise up along with them. And all that happens in just over an hour of runtime! They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
What’s it about? Bill and Trina, two people living meal to meal on the margins of society, build a life together in a shantytown hovel. When Trina gets pregnant, Bill considers turning to crime so that he can provide for their child.
Why should you watch it? Trust me when I say that this pre-Code romance is uplifting, even magical, despite the grim plot synopsis. Before the advent of FilmStruck, I had’t seen Man’s Castle in a long time (because it’s not on DVD), but certain images and sequences stayed with me for years. The opening scene in which a starving Loretta Young weeps as Spencer Tracy feeds popcorn to pigeons. The lovers skinny dipping in the moonlight. Glittering music hall queen Glenda Farrell having an unspoken conversation with Tracy in the audience. Tracy innocently fidgeting with a little wind-up toy as his accomplice breaks a safe.
Frank Borzage, cinema’s lyric poet of the love that blossoms from adversity, turns the mean city into an intimate dreamlike landscape against which our couple finds strength in their shared vulnerability.
What’s it about? An egotistical Broadway impresario turns a lingerie model into a star actress, but she grows tired of his possessive ways. Can he win her back in time to save himself from ruin?
Why should you watch it? There’s something especially hilarious about movies that call for actors to play actors, giving the stars permission to chew the scenery and work themselves up into high dudgeon. Carole Lombard and John Barrymore both deliver go-big-or-go-home comic performances, while hinting at the scared real people holding the strings of those big bombastic balloons.
Starting with the rehearsal from hell and building to a madcap climax aboard a train, the ever-brilliant Howard Hawks whips up enough frenzied energy to fuel a major railroad. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script marries droll, flowery dialogue with kicking-and-screaming physical comedy. I’ve watched Twentieth Century several dozen times in my life, and it never fails to crack me up.
What’s it about? A suave maître d’ intervenes to protect the wife of an abusive shipping magnate and falls in love with the damsel in distress.
Why should you watch it? This heady cocktail of genres has something to please everyone. Whether you like disaster movies, screwball comedies, feel-good romances, weepy melodramas, or psychological thrillers, you’ll get your money’s worth out of History Is Made at Night. What’s most staggering to me is how well all of the different tones balance each other out without diluting the power of any mood or element.
Patron saint of celluloid star-crossed lovers Frank Borzage is at it again, making us swoon at the intoxicating power of romance. Watch this as a double feature with Man’s Castle if you need to restore your faith in humanity. Jean Arthur dancing a late-night tango (barefoot, no less!) with Charles Boyer ranks among the most charming getting-to-know-you scenes produced by classic Hollywood. “I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life,” Arthur says as dawn breaks. “Because I’ve never been happy before.”
Finally, I have to put in a word for my man Colin Clive, who died of tuberculosis shortly after making History Is Made at Night. The movie pivots on his elegantly febrile turn as an evil husband willing to kill thousands of people merely to slake his quest for personal revenge.
What’s it about? Celebrated amateur sleuth Captain Drummond sets out to free an heiress from the gloomy manor where crooks have her imprisoned.
Why should you watch it? Sometimes you need great art that moves you to tears. Sometimes you need a fun, atmospheric little mystery to amuse you on a dark and stormy night. Bulldog Drummond Escapes does the latter admirably. Ray Milland in a trench coat traipsing through fog is a gift to us all. His beguiling goofy-yet-dashing vibe as Drummond makes me deeply sad that he only essayed the role once.
What’s it about? In her twilight years, Lydia, a great beauty who never married, reminisces with the men who loved and lost her long ago. But memories can be deceptive. Do any of Lydia’s suitors know who she really is?
Why should you watch it? Because it’s a sweeping, sympathetic, tender waltz through the saddest chambers of the human heart. Lydia gives her love to a scoundrel, suffers, and throws away any chance at happiness with another man. And yet Duvivier helps us embrace all that loss and regret and see its bittersweet beauty. No love is given in vain, since, as Lydia muses, “The past always improves. It’s about the only thing that does.”
Merle Oberon pours her heart into all of Lydia’s emotions and irreconcilable contradictions. So much of what makes this movie great is her face, whether coyly peeking up from under a lacy hat, beaming with joy as an Atlantic wind whips her hair, or frozen with humiliation as her eyes reflect a flickering fire.
Released weeks after Citizen Kane, Lydia explores similar themes—the perspective of old age, the complex truth of memory, the fragmentation of identity—through a similar flashback structure. But the final piece of Lydia’s puzzle is no sentimental rosebud. It’s a quietly staggering blow, a silken gut punch that will haunt me for quite some time.
What’s it about? In occupied Poland, a theater troupe must pull off a daring, elaborate charade in order to neutralize a high-ranking Nazi spy.
Why should you watch it? Ernst Lubitsch works a miracle of high-stakes comedy, proving that sometimes the most potent way to respond to evil is to laugh and laugh hard. The Nazis ravaging Lubitsch’s native Poland in To Be or Not to Be are both scary and ridiculous. The director denies his enemies the stoic, steely dignity that Hollywood too often accorded them and instead takes aim at the Nazis’ pomposity, venality, and humorless vision of a homogenous world.
On the side of the good guys, To Be or Not to Be suggests that you can always count on arty weirdos to strike a blow for freedom and democracy. (Indeed, many heroes of the real-life resistance in Europe were poets, musicians, or creatives of some kind.) Jack Benny delivers his best film performance and arguably the greatest double-take in cinema. Given surprisingly little comedy business in her final film role, Carole Lombard holds the film together with her cunning, determination, and moral judgement.
I don’t want to give too much away, but anyone who likes movies deserves to see this virtuoso high-wire act that breathtakingly melds art and life, drama and reality.
What’s it about? An insecure spinster escapes the clutches of her tyrannical mother, reinvents herself with guidance from a kind psychiatrist, and falls in love with a married man.
Why should you watch it?Now, Voyager is a soothing and nourishing movie. I’m so grateful it exists.
Without sensationalism or condescension, director Irving Rapper illuminates one woman’s inner life. There’s no need to create unnecessary drama, no tendency to move on from Charlotte’s struggles to the real plot. She is the plot. Now, Voyager treats a woman’s psychological journey with the same respect and attention that cinema usually reserves for grievous sins, battles, and murders.
In one of her finest, most restrained performances, Bette Davis invites us to share Charlotte’s emotional ups and downs and rewards the viewer with a transcendent feeling of catharsis. And although she dials down the diva factor, I feel reborn when Bette Davis makes a magnificent entrance in that little black dress.
Perhaps the most well-known film in this post, Now, Voyager nevertheless seems like a movie that can easily sit on your “to watch” list for years. It’s a difficult movie for me to “sell” because there aren’t many movies like it. Poignant but not overwrought. Romantic but not defined by romantic tribulations. Psychological but not gimmicky. I procrastinated watching it for a long time, because the plot synopsis sounded sappy and depressing. Now it’s one of my favorite films.
What’s it about? A melancholy little girl conjures an imaginary friend—or is it the ghost of her father’s first wife?—and struggles to mediate between her daydreams and the dangers of the real world.
Why should you watch it? Few movies have captured the intensity of childhood as sublimely as The Curse of the Cat People. Master noir and horror cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a spell over us, so we can revisit the heightened experience of youth. Ice sparkles lovingly. Snow falls with malice. Shadows carry the sadness of broken hearts and lost souls. Inscribed in every frame is the wonder, the fear, the despair, and the sense of inhabiting a hidden universe that grown-ups don’t understand.
The Curse of the Cat People is the perfect autumn-to-winter movie. As the seasons slip by, the changing landscape makes the viewer ache with nostalgia. The meandering, almost anecdotal narrative gives Ann Carter a chance to shine with one of cinema’s greatest child performances.
Whereas many coming of age tales conclude with a child pulling away from their dreams. this movievalidates the child’s fantasy world. As The Curse of the Cat People implies, the only way to heal our wounds is to return to that pure seeing, that acceptance of the marvelous among us, which the film recreates.
If you do watch any of these selections on FilmStruck, let me know what you think! And feel free to suggest themes for future lists and guides!
“I’m still here!” That was the cheerful reminder in the card I received from Mary Carlisle last Christmas. Since Carlisle turns an astounding 104 today, I thought I’d share the message and recommend 2 of my favorites from her filmography.
If you love classic movies, you’ve certainly seen Carlisle, whether floating through the lobby of Grand Hotel in a chic aviator costume, dancing with Bing Crosby in a madcap Paramount musical, or mediating between Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance.
After paying her dues as an “extra girl” at MGM, Carlisle rose to supporting roles in movies starring the likes of Lionel Barrymore, May Robson, Will Rogers, and Walter Huston. She continued as a featured player and sometime leading lady until she retired in 1943.
Over 85 years after her first credited part, Carlisle is last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, one of very few folks who can remember Hollywood’s pre-Code days firsthand, and (to my knowledge) the only living person who was photographed in two-color Technicolor.
Handed many generic ingenue roles, Carlisle infused them with a verve and sparkle that was uniquely hers—the same luminous joie-de-vivre that has sustained her for over a century. Screenland described her as “our personal pick for sure-fire pep in any screen scene.” And in 1934, Picture Play magazine sounded downright surprised at the dedication and charisma that went with her sweet appearance: “Mary Carlisle might easily be just another blonde cutie and be content with that but it happens the girl can act! Steadily improving in each part she plays, never neglecting her sense of humor, she’s one of the really talented newcomers.”
Our talented newcomer did her share of demurely gazing into a screen-beloved’s eyes, but the Mary Carlisle moments I cherish most are those that show her feistiness. After all, you didn’t make a place for yourself in 1930s Hollywood without possessing some serious moxie. Watch Carlisle give crotchety old millionaire Charley Grapewin a real tongue-lashing in One Frightened Night when he accuses her of being a fortune-hunting impostor.
In this delightful whodunit, Carlisle is the second girl claiming to be the long-lost heiress to a vast fortune. Despite a fantastic cast, the movie drags ever so slightly until Carlisle arrives at the 20-minute mark and buoys it up with with that “sure-fire pep” of hers.
Carlisle makes a dramatic entrance, seen from the outside of the gloomy manor, running out of the howling rain (on the prerequisite Dark and Stormy Night). She opens the door, shouts a cautious “HELLO!” into an unresponsive house, settles in front of the nearest fire, and engages in some mocking patter with Regis Toomey, the first person she encounters.
She swiftly impresses the audience as the opposite of inert, simpering granddaughter claimant #1, Evelyn Knapp. There’s something enchantingly Mae West-ish about the way 21-year-old Carlisle then proceeds to assert herself with the family lawyer. A haughty chin tilt and defiant tone cuts her challengers down to size. This is the kind of gal who really does value her dignity above 5 million dollars. Though she be but little, she is fierce!
Playing a sassy vaudevillian, Carlisle gives us an old dark house heroine who’s more than usually capable of taking care of herself. When ne’er-do-well Regis Toomey tries to put the moves on her, she likes him, but she’s not ready to trust him. She rolls her eyes and expertly brushes his hand right off her shoulder.
Toomey goes to leave her in a creepy-as-hell room filled with mummy cases, shrunken heads, and skulls. “You’re not afraid, are you?” He asks. Though quaking with fear, she steels herself and replies, “Well, I guess I’ve played tougher houses than this.” Unlike many a damsel, she reflexively grabs a weapon when she’s alarmed. She may be spooked, but she continues to intrepidly explore the lugubrious family manse.
An independent production, One Frightened Night is cozy good fun, an underrated gem among old dark house movies. Even the opening—in which the camera tracks towards rain-spattered windows as the blinds are pulled down to reveal credits—displays exceptional panache, despite the shoestring-budget.
This flick delivers everything we expect. Secret passages! Exotic murder weapon! A gallery of eccentric suspects! Goofy comic relief! Most importantly, the cast clearly is having a ball. It’s like the audience has been invited to the swellest murder mystery dinner party ever. Because it’s in the public domain, you can watch One Frightened Night right now.
Essentially an old dark house movie on wheels—and steroids—this action-packed oddball thriller also casts Carlisle as an imperiled lady set to inherit a fortune. Murder was her penultimate pre-Code and one of 9 movies that she made in 1934. Although Charlie Ruggles and Una Merkel run amok, Carlisle serves as the linchpin of the plot. I can’t think of many 1930s ingenues who could hold this vortex of zaniness together and make us care about her character as much as Carlisle does.
There’s a special place in my heart for zippy B-movies that commit to their wackiness. You know, the sort of earnestly outlandish programmers and cult films that play their material—wild contrivances, plot holes, and all—utterly straight. You’ve gotta admire the sheer accelerating weirdness of a 63-minute barn-burner like Murder in the Private Car. The thick layer of MGM gloss and glamour is icing on this time bomb cake.
If the phrases “kidnapped heiress,” “killer gorilla on the loose,” and “runaway train loaded with explosives” tickle your fancy, then you are in for treat with this one, my friends.
The bond between Carlisle’s and Merkel’s characters imbues this film with a sense of sisterhood and solidarity. As harried telephone operators, they work side-by-side in teasing harmony. When Carlisle discovers that she’s the long-lost daughter of a rich man, even such a dizzying class change doesn’t break their friendship. Merkel is genuinely happy for her friend. She smiles sadly, not because she’s jealous or resentful; she expects that she’ll have to say goodbye forever. But Carlisle isn’t going to abandon her. She gleefully yanks out the telephone lines and pulls Merkel out of the office, towards a better life for both of them.
And it’s a good thing she does drag her friend along with her. I mean, when you’re in your lingerie and you need to fend off an escaped gorilla trying to rampage into your train compartment, you need a gal pal, am I right? Battling a man in a bad monkey suit, Carlisle and Merkel define professionalism.
They really do look terrified, bless their hearts. This dynamic duo valiantly sells that scene in all its glorious, colossal silliness. Because they take it deadly serious. Oh, did I mention that the gorilla has nothing to do with the main murder mayhem plot? Really, this movie is nuts.
Una Merkel garners the lion’s share of funny lines—and who could deliver them better? Commenting on Carlisle’s hunky bodyguard, Merkel can’t help but drool, “I wish there were a man like that guarding my body.” Carlisle get some snappy dialogue too. At the conclusion of a nonsensical speech, Charlie Ruggles asks, “Simple?” Carlisle disapprovingly quips, “You certainly are.”
Murder in the Private Car culminates in a slam-bang set piece that makes you feel like you’re riding a roller-coaster with the characters. The combination of skillful rear projection and shenanigans with real trains demonstrates that MGM didn’t do things by halves. Given how exciting the finale is on my laptop screen, I suspect that moviegoers left the theaters feeling very satiated with thrills.
Fair warning: Not everybody enjoys this film as much as I do. (My pal Danny of Pre-Code.com gave it a rare “dislike”!) Apart from a few cringe-inducing gags, Murder in the Private Car strikes me as uproariously entertaining, but then again I happen to think that wildly implausible plots are endearing.
Many of Mary Carlisle’s films are difficult to find, but this duo of comedy-chillers is within easy reach. I hope you’ll seek them out—although, in all of their strangeness and wonder, they’re certainly not as amazing as Carlisle’s own life.
The French, inexorably judgmental in so many things, are merciful when it comes to the transition from one year to the next. You have until the end of January to send holiday greetings, well wishes, and fond regards.
Today I’m going to use that extension to reminisce about 2017.
But was I writing about classic movies? Nope. Not as much as I would’ve liked. I guess I was too busy watching a lot of new (old) movies that delighted me, scared me, and generally “gave me all the feels.” (As a millennial, I’m contractually obligated to say that.) Interestingly enough, a major theme that unites many of these very different discoveries is radical life changes—journeys from frustration to fulfillment, from cowardice to courage, from conformity to freedom.
So, before I turn the page on 2017, I wanted to compose my thoughts on a few favorite new-to-me films.
The Four Feathers (Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1929)
What’s it about? The son of a British general decides to quit the army rather than risk his life to quell an uprising in Sudan. Branded a coward by his comrades and rejected by his fiancée, our hero sets off to rescue his friends and prove his courage.
Why do I love it? It’s always exciting to watch a performance so good that it makes you change your mind about an actor. In this case, who knew that Richard Arlen could be so charismatic? Certainly not me, despite having seen a significant slice of his prime Paramount filmography. His odd combination of boyish swagger and aggrieved aloofness finds its ideal vehicle in this oft-adapted adventure yarn.
Sweat and grime suited Arlen. The image that will stay with me most from this film isn’t shifting sands or fierce tribes or Victorian ballrooms, but a close-up of Arlen at the moment when he puts his body on the line to block mutinous troops from escape. His nostrils flared, his ridiculous cheekbones bulging under rakish stubble, his eyes glittering with defiance, his face leaves an unshakeable impression. I can think of few close-ups that pack the same transformative weight in a character’s arc. At that moment, Arlen’s huge face on the screen of the Capitol Theater became less a face than an emblem for a less disillusioned world. Or the dream of one, because 1929 was pretty damn disillusioning.
Make no mistake, this is heady imperialist propaganda, so rousingly made by masters of the exotic epic Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack that you’ve got to handle it with care. If The Four Feathers extols a bygone way of thinking that we should not mourn, it also exemplifies the sophistication and lost grandeur of the late silent era. And that we should mourn. We can learn a lot from the past, if only how to make a sprawling, monumental, novelistic movie that clocks in at 81 minutes.
What’s it about? When her fiancé breaks off their engagement, a bit part actress snaps, drives off the set, and arrives at a swanky hotel in in her studio-owned car and glad rags. In a kind of fugue state, she decides to live it up and pass herself off as a Countess. But how long can she keep up the charade? Will new men in her life, a suave aristocrat and a crotchety crook, reveal her secret?
Why do I love it? If The Countess of Monte Cristo is poor man’s Lubitsch, it’s still very rich indeed. Great cameraman-turned-director Karl Freund gives this Great Depression wish fulfillment romp a buoyant frothiness. When I remember this movie, I see contrast between the dire gloom of the early scenes and the cheerful, gilded, 5-star-hotel sparkle of Wray’s sort-of-accidental foray into grand larceny. And don’t get me started on the snowy brightness and snuggly fireside crackle of the romantic subplot. We get a montage of Fay Wray and Paul Lukas frolicking through an alpine paradise of sports and snow in fur coats and designed woolens, for crying out loud.
Though remembered most for her signature scream, Wray was a smart, tough cookie in real life, and The Countess of Monte Cristo gave her the chance to carry a movie (which she did more often than she’s given credit for). She could wrap the audience around her little finger, even when she’s not pursued by a giant ape. Never forget it.
Paul Lukas is dreamier than I ever remember him being. He looks damn fine when smoking in hotel hallways, and Freund lets Lukas smolder frequently. As Wray’s accomplice and gal pal (who apparently shares a bath with her sometimes), Patsy Kelly delivers the lion’s share of funniness. And, as the curmudgeonly master thief who uses Mitzi as bait, Reginald Owen steals plenty of scenes, memorably sneering, “I’m not diabolical. I’m debonair.” What’s not to love?
Where can you see it? Nowhere at the moment. Of all my 2017 discoveries, this is the one I’d most like to rewatch. Unfortunately, it’s buried deep in the archives at Universal. At Capitolfest, I was part of the first audience to see The Countess of Monte Cristo since the initial release. Maybe it’ll show up at a rare film festival near you!
Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)
What’s it about? A medieval Russian prince leads an army of lusty singing peasants and lovelorn landowners to battle evil baby-burning German invaders.
Why do I love it? Prince Alexander has great hair. Love me some progressive medieval chieftains who fight alongside women, violently dislike religious fanatics, accessorize with blingy medallions, and flip their fabulous, shiny locks victoriously in front of the camera.
Seriously, though, like everybody else who took a college film course (or 9), I had to watch and read a heaping helping of Sergei Eisenstein. It kind of wore thin on me. YES, MONTAGE IS LIKE A HAIKU IN THAT A MEANING IS PRODUCED WHICH IS NOT PRESENT IN A SINGLE IMAGE ALONE. THANK YOU, SERGEI. YOU ARE VERY CLEVER. I left school without any inclination to further explore his work recreationally.
As much as I respect Eisenstein as a film pioneer, I had given up on enjoying any of his films until I saw this rip-roaring action epic. It’s ultimately about beating the living bejeezus out of proto-Nazis. (And in case you have any doubts that the villains are in fact supposed to stand for Nazis, take a good look at what the zealot bishop has on his little hat.)
Eisenstein’s use of black and white and every shade of gray in between packs a punch into each frame. The frigid, dead whiteness of the German knights’ tunics. The masses of dark troops organizing like some macabre ballet on the ice. Prince Alexander and his lieutenants in chainmail, surveying the land from jagged gunmetal cliffs and harmonizing against the silvery sky. (Sure, it didn’t hurt that I saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show.)
Despite some deeply disturbing scenes, Alexander Nevsky is exuberantly entertaining. I call it the Eisenstein Capades, maybe the most fun you can have with the father of montage.
What’s it about? Magazine editor Liza Elliott is a Woman Who Has It All. So why can’t she make up her mind—about her upcoming magazine issue, about the men in her life, about what she really wants? Why does she feel listless and depressed? And why have her dreams turned into bizarre Technicolor allegories? Hm, I wonder if it has to do with some kind of Freudian childhood trauma…
Why do I love it? The colors. My lord, the electrifying, terrifying, soul-nourishing, phantasmagoric colors. Blue dresses and red sequins and orange lipstick and neon pink columns surrounded by lavender mists. Busby Berkeley himself would have to call this movie seriously trippy. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and Lady in the Dark must be one of the most visually stimulating films I’ve ever seen. Director Mitchell Leisen explained his philosophy of color as an embrace of dissonance, like the conflicting colors of dresses at a real-life dinner party.
With Lady in the Dark, Leisen creates a film that seems to be rebelling against itself and subjects its surface dogma to a brutal bombardment of destabilizing beauty. The regressive 1940s-ness the script clashes with the liberating fantasia of the images, celebrating the heroine’s spectacularly troubled unconscious, Freudian complexes and all.
I hope to write more about this one in the future, because it’s been haunting me since I left the the screening at TCMFF! Oh, did I mention I saw it on nitrate? I could hardly stay in my seat.
Where can you see it? Not on a legit U.S. DVD. But you can find it on a major online video platform that begins with Y. And some non-legit purveyors of DVDs have it, too.
Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)
What’s it about? A maid struggles to fit into her place in society, despite a fascination with plumbing (yes, really!) and her attraction to a refugee writer who cherishes her weirdness.
Why do I love it? As Lubitsch’s penultimate film, Cluny Brown shows a gentler, mellower side of the director’s cheeky comedy, far from the pyrotechnics of his 1930s output. His quiet mastery of the film medium imparts a cozy glow to this wondrous journey of self-acceptance—but you can’t miss the sharp side-eye cast at the nonsensical constraints of convention. (The villains of the piece are grim and instantly recognizable as every self-loathing petty buzzkill sadist you’ve known in your life.)
The chemistry between Jennifer Jones (never spunkier) and Charles Boyer (never more lovable) sings the truth at the heart of Lubitsch’s best work: we’re at our most ridiculously sexy when we’re at our most ridiculous. Get you a man who beams with admiration when you pull out a wrench to bang on drainage pipes or when you drop the dinner tray shrieking about nuts to the squirrels.
Where can you see it?Cluny Brown occasionally airs on TCM. Heaven knows why it’s not available on a legit U.S. DVD, but that’s my excuse for taking so long to see it. You can probably find it on the vast tangle of internets.
The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh, 1947)
What’s it about? Blues singer Petey goes home to help out her family in Los Angeles and lands a job in a nightclub. Can she protect her siblings from tough breaks while fending off the slimy advances of her gangster boss?
Why do I love it? Ida Lupino smokes, croons, gets her heartbroken, wears Milo Anderson gowns, and slaps awful men in a musical noir romance ensemble melodrama. What more could I say?
What’s it about? A charitable dowager takes an interest in a charming, penniless artist… allowing him to invade her home and hold her prisoner. Will he succeed in robbing her of everything she treasures, including her sanity?
Why do I love it? By this point in her career, Ethel Barrymore’s mesmerizing talents were usually confined to supporting roles (see Portrait of Jennie, The Spiral Staircase, Moss Rose). Kind Lady gave her a leading role, and, boy, does she ever rip into it. Even today, there’s a decided dearth of worthy vehicles for women over 60 to share the craft they’ve honed over their distinguished careers. It’s downright revelatory to watch a mid-century gaslighting thriller centered on a mature, romantically unattached woman.
Beneath the impeccable control of an Edwardian lady, Barrymore exudes a potent combination of dread and determination. In one unforgettable scene, she responds to the mockingly grotesque portrait that her captor has painted of her. Though literally tied down and physically powerless, she slices through his attempt to diminish her and affirms her identity and dignity with her voice alone. I get chills just thinking about it!
Although we’re rooting for Queen Ethel, Kind Lady spins a gripping tale from uncomfortable questions of luxury and inequality. The fascination with art and collection adds an aura of decadence and semi-Gothic obsession to this tale. One senses that the villain doesn’t merely want money. He derives a perverse pleasure from seeking to destroy a woman whose taste, fortitude, and compassion confronts him with his own inadequacies as an artist and a human being.
What’s it about? Oh, gosh. Let’s just say that a bunch of devious people try to do devious things and fail miserably. Imagine The Maltese Falcon if everybody was stoned and couldn’t get their sh*t together.
Why do I love it? Weirdly enough, I started watching Beat the Devil maybe 10 years ago and turned it off after 15 minutes. It just didn’t click. The transfer was bad. I wanted to take it seriously (Heck, it’s John Huston and Humphrey Bogart!) and the movie would not cooperate.
Seeing it at TCMFF (with a similarly appreciative audience) made me fall in love with this oddball caper and welcome its canny meta humor. Exhibit A: Robert Morley, trying to release his posse from the clutches of an unamused authority figure, says something like, “Well, surely looking at us should show that we’re honest!” Whereupon the camera pans across the grisliest rogue’s gallery you can imagine, culminating in Peter I’ve-Played-a-Lot-of-Serial-Killers Lorre. Dear reader, I howled with laughter.
This one is a roaring good time if you’re in on the joke—the joke being Hollywood’s penchant for twisty heist films and thrillers set in spicy locales. And daffy savant Jennifer Jones is my new spirit animal.
Where can you see it? It’s fallen into the public domain, so you can watch it just about anywhere they’ve got movies. The DVD I have is not great, but I haven’t bought the Blu yet but I plan on doing so.
Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1960)
What’s it about? Glamorous European aristos who go to costume parties and fall hopelessly in love with their cousins and ride horses around their sprawling countryside estates and cry into their pillows over their love for their cousins. Also vampires?
Why do I love it? Despite my love of vampire movies and Technicolor eye candy, I procrastinated this one for many years, expecting something ponderously trashy (bloodsucking Barbarella, basically). I was surprised by the film’s combination of delicate, youthful sensuality and bitter regret. In one dazzling scene, our heroine stares transfixed by a vision of love she can never share, and psychedelic flashes of fireworks play over her fresh face as it hardens into despondency. Vadim reinvents the aesthetics of the Gothic, giving us ancient dances played off records, sleek mid-century décors chilled by unrequited passion, and ruins demolished by the remnants of WWII shells.
One of my favorite art historians, Kenneth Clark, said that the painter Watteau understood the sadness of pleasure better than anybody else. Blood and Roses is rather like a horror film made by Watteau. If it is a horror film at all. Because, in this movie, the supernatural is not an intrusion into the characters’ lives, not an invading other. The divisions between past and present, self and other, living and dead, dreams and reality, are not the reassuring partitions we like to imagine.
I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say, this movie is everything I thought it wouldn’t be: subtle, pensive, lingering… and, dare I say, immortal.
Where can you see it? Jeez, I like a lot of not-on-U.S.-DVD movies, huh? This one is not hard to find if you do a Google video search.
The King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966)
What’s it about? During the bloody final days of World War I, a timid British soldier is ordered to defuse a massive bomb hidden somewhere in a quaint French town. He discovers that all the “normal” residents of town have fled, leaving only the whimsical inmates of the local asylum. Will he save the day? Even if he does, what happens when he has to march away, back to the sausage-grinder of trench warfare?
Why do I love it? Around once a year, I happen upon a film that utterly wrecks me in public. In 2017, The King of Hearts was that movie. When the theater lights came up at TCMFF, black rivulets of teary eyeliner streamed down my cheeks, and my heart swelled with the sublime recognition that cinema hasn’t lost its power to destroy me.
Those labeled as crazy are truly the sanest among us. War is true madness. These aren’t novel ideas. But The King of Hearts’ air of frenetic, carnavalesque melancholy perfectly captures the sadness and muffled horror of living in a world that doesn’t give a damn about your flickering happiness as much as it cares about you killing people you’ve never met.
It’s one of the few movies that’s effectively captured the absurdity and impaled innocence of World War I. And yet I left the theater on a swell of butterfly-fragile hope. Throughout it all, the tender bonds between Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold and between the cohort of inmates as a whole exalt the life-saving power of love and imagination—the craziest and most beautiful qualities of humanity.
What’s it about? An archaeologist’s daughter feels the pull of an ancient spirit, a powerful sorceress queen who wants to return to the land of the living. And take her vengeance.
Why do I love it? Hammer horror isn’t exactly known for an abundance of complex female characters. Beyond the “blood and boobs” reputation, however, you’ll find quite a few juicy femme fatale roles in the Hammer canon. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb offered up arguably Hammer’s best role for an actress. Valerie Leon seems poised to be just another likable daughter figure when we begin to see another personality leech into her, a commanding woman with fearsome occult knowledge.
The ambiguity of this Hammer installment intrigues me. The script wrestles with the good-evil duality that many horror movies accept at face value. Is the Queen Tera really a force of darkness, hellbent on destroying the world as we know it? Or is she a brilliant seer, persecuted all those millennia ago by the ruthless patriarchy? Perhaps she’s both, an eternal embodiment of the knife-edge balance between good and evil that sustain the universe as we know it.
I enjoyed the chutzpah with which Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb toys with its audience, trampling all over the reassuring “rules” of who lives and dies in the Hammer universe. And that last shot, a fitting tribute to the horror genre fixation on women’s eyes, has not left my mind since I saw this underrated Hammer gem months ago.
Where can you see it? Yay, this one is on DVD! Glad to end on a positive note. Otherwise you’d have to endure a tirade about film (un)availability.
Other 2017 recaps and best-of lists that I’ve enjoyed:
For Valentine’s Day 2017, I cooked up a totally new batch of pre-Code love letters to keep the spark of censor-defying romance alive. 100% guaranteed to add oodles of whoopee, sizzle, “it,” hot-cha-cha to your day.
Why Be Good? (1929) – Colleen Moore gets her man—and teaches him a lesson or two—in this delightful feminist flapper romance.
The Divorcee (1930) – Norma Shearer is looking for a revenge fling. And Robert Montgomery is very willing to be flung.
Morocco (1930) – Sure, Dietrich ends up with Gary Cooper. But the real heat in the movie comes from that tuxedo kiss.
Frankenstein (1931) – You had me at “experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.” Colin Clive doesn’t need a lightning bolt to give me life.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – Miriam Hopkins goes from drab to fab to impress Maurice Chevalier.
Horse Feathers (1932) – If you need me, I’ll be writing some Groucho-Thelma Todd fan fiction. The line comes from Monkey Business (1931).
Movie Crazy (1932) – Harold Lloyd gets himself into an adorable mess—all for his lady love.
No Man of Her Own (1932) – Years before Lombard and Gable became a real-life item, they played an unlikely couple in this steamy romantic drama.
One Way Passage (1932) – We all know what those dreamy dissolves mean… William Powell and Kay Francis make the most of their time together (especially the bits we don’t see) in this intoxicatingly beautiful film.
Rain (1932) – “Who’s gonna destruct me?” Joan Crawford is a force of nature as Sadie Thompson.
Scarface (1932) – Tony Camonte likes Poppy’s class and sass. What does Poppy like about Tony? The fact that he’s not making it out of this movie alive.
Footlight Parade (1933) – It’s a silly caption, I admit. But I honestly just can’t with these two.
I’m No Angel (1933) – The perks of being an auteur of box office gold comedy? You get to write your own happy endings, like Mae West did.
The Thin Man (1934) – Nick and Nora Charles remind us that excitement is the key to a long-lasting marriage. (Booze and money don’t hurt either.)
Horror and winter weather go together in my mind. Whenever a fierce north wind sets my windowpanes rattling and snow engulfs the landscape like some bizarre fungus, I want nothing more than to curl up with a pot of tea and some spooky stories.
Many great horror movies wield the threatening beauty of winter to evoke fear and wonder. Think of the bundled-up mystery of The Invisible Man’s opening scenes, the forbidding splendor of The Curse of The Cat People’s conclusion, the snowbound terror of The Thing from Another World, and the wintry isolation of The Shining.
The motif of menacing snow and ice runs through classic horror radio as well. Snow might imprison radio characters in one of those tense, confined locations that became a hallmark of the medium. Or icy winds might attack our heroes on a journey, suggesting nature’s hostility towards puny mankind. Or perhaps the grip of the cold underscores a sinister force beyond human knowledge.
On this fine snowy day, I’ve picked out 10 chilling episodes that relate to snow, ice, and winter. Make yourself some cocoa, cuddle under a blanket, and swap your real-life worries for some old-fashioned terrors.
“Poltergeist” – Lights Out! – December 16, 1936
Three women on a holiday break in the country provoke the wrath of a malevolent spirit when they unknowingly dance on a grave. I’ve probably listened to this old-time radio episode more than any other. The rising hysteria of the heroines, the evocations of bitter cold, the ghost’s unusual modus operandi, and the hallucinatory conclusion make this a perfect haunting tale for a winter’s night.
“Return Trip” – Suspense – June 27, 1946
Yes, it’s one of those “Who among us is the escaped lunatic?” potboilers that old-time radio did so well. As a bus hurtles through a blizzard, passengers eye each other suspiciously. They know that one of them may be the killer who recently broke loose from an asylum. Disaster looms over the bus, but how will it strike? The homicidal maniac? The weather? The escalating paranoia of the passengers? All of the above?
“Northern Lights” – Quiet, Please – January 30, 1949
A little bit Lovecraft, a little bit E.F. Benson, a whole lot of icy Wyllis Cooper imagination. Two researchers experimenting with teleportation notice an abundance of strange caterpillars in their laboratory. Where did the creatures come from? And do they hold the secret of a cosmic horror poised to descend on humanity? If far-out sci-fi is your jam, you will love this episode, one of the best and scariest from Quiet, Please.
“The Abominable Snowman” – Escape – September 13, 1953
The pinnacle of armchair adventure radio, Escape dramatized action-packed stories so vividly that you feel transported to faraway lands. In this riveting horror-laced thriller, an excursion party in the Himalayas tracks the legendary Yeti in the hope of bringing a specimen back to civilization. Good luck with that.
“The Crystalline Man” – Macabre – January 1, 1962
An ill-fated expedition to a glacier uncovers a glistening tomb buried deep in a crevasse, containing a translucent, uncannily lifelike statue of a man. Once the crystalline figure is installed in a museum, people start to die. This far-fetched but fun episode doesn’t have that much to do with snow and ice, but a certain voice at the end certainly chills me to the bone.
“The Phantom Coach” – Beyond Midnight – 1968
Fair warning: Muffled audio dampens the pleasure of this radio adaptation of Amelia B. Edwards’s spooky classic. However, I think you’ll still enjoy this surreal, slightly rambling tale, punctuated by a ghastly denouement. A man lost in the snow luckily happens to catch the attention of a passing coach on the moors and finds himself in odd company.
“The Ghost-Grey Bat” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 25, 1981
Don’t you hate it when your charming vacation-swap home in Austria turns out to be the lair of an unholy terror? Sudden snowstorms and motifs of frosty desperation crop up frequently in CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes, including “The White Wolf” and “Return to Shadow Lake,” but “The Ghost-Grey Bat” is my favorite example by far.
“The Porch Light” – Nightfall – February 26, 1982
CBC’s Nightfall combined the sleight-of-hand suspense that we associate with golden age OTR with distinctly lurid, modern material. “The Porch Light” falls within the grand tradition of stories about clueless young married couples who move into houses with dark pasts.
In the wee hours of the morning, while a heavy snowstorm rages outside, our unlucky protagonists see a man on their porch. A man who casts no shadow. Don’t expect a happy ending, folks.
“The Snowman Killing” – Fear on Four – January 3, 1988
Creepy kids are creepy. Creepy kids who build possessed snowmen and threaten their siblings with death by freezing are quite a large helping of British heebie-jeebies to spread on your scones. BBC’s Fear on Four struck a delicate balance between subtlety and stomach-churning horror that “The Snowman Killing” exemplifies.
“Snow Shadow Area” – The Vanishing Point – February 3, 1989
“Winter: a state of mind. Wonderland… or cold-blooded killer?” During an oppressive winter, a series of child mutilations terrorizes a small community. Listener, beware. This story is not for the faint of heart. Don’t blame me for your nightmares.
So, this October I’ve sifted through audio archives again and put together a totally new list: 31 more spooky radio episodes for you to enjoy.
In our seen-it-all era, it’s inspiring for me to discover that so many other people gravitate towards radio’s subtle storytelling.
Macabre masterworks of cinema often harness the power of the unseen. As Fritz Lang described the offscreen child murder in M (1931), “The violence is in your imagination… by not showing it, I force you as spectators to think about the most frightening thoughts you can imagine.”
Radio horror, by the very nature of the medium, possesses this alarming power to hijack your mind’s eye, to tap into your worst fears. It preys upon your imagination, holding your senses hostage. I love it.
This year I got to dig deeper and share some episodes that I consider underrated, along with a few beloved creepers. These are in rough chronological order by the date of the oldest episode I selected from a given series.
Since this is a film blog, all of the images I’ve included here for ambiance are stills or screenshots from classic movies. Can you identify them all?
Cuddle up under a blanket and prepare for shudders!
Update (10/4/16): I was made aware of a 2 episodes that weren’t playing. This was due to special characters in the URLs that were creating problems. I’ve found alternate URLs and they’re working now. Thanks for your patience!
1. “The Hairy Thing” – The Witch’s Tale – Aired on September 26, 1932
We can all thank The Witch’s Tale and its creator Alonzo Deen Cole for ushering in the grand tradition of radio horror. Only a small percentage of its original episodes survive; some seem creaky today, but a few retain their original spark of spookiness.
In this standout early episode, a plucky nurse inherits an old house—on the condition that she sleep there every night for a year. Alone. In a certain room. Okay, you’ve totally heard that premise before, but the unusual supernatural entity that creeps by night in this tale might still send chills up your spine.
2. “The Gypsy’s Hand” – The Witch’s Tale – April 5, 1934
A doctor amputates the infected hand of a world-famous pianist who promptly dies of sorrow—and seeks revenge beyond the grave. A variation of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” this story begins with a stomach-churning operating scene, then works its way up to a crescendo of blood-curdling screams.
3. “Knock at the Door” – Lights Out! – December 15, 1942
Our narrator, a hardboiled dame if ever there was one, wanted the easy life. She had a plan. Marry a chump. Kill his mother. Enjoy her money. But our heroine didn’t bargain for momma’s willpower—so strong that she’d even crawl out of her watery grave to protect her not-so-bright baby boy.
4. “The Meteor Man” – Lights Out! – December 22, 1942
A professor brings a meteorite into his home to examine it. Little does he know that the rock from outer space carried a passenger to earth—and a hostile one at that. (The lead actors’ accents come and go, but if you can get past that, this episode contains some first-rate material from Arch Oboler.)
5. “Death Robbery” – Lights Out! – July 16, 1947
When will fictional scientists learn that reanimating corpses is not a great idea? When it stops being entertaining, I suppose. And this episode certainly is entertaining. Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist who seeks to vanquish death. When tragedy strikes, he uses a loved one as his human guinea pig with calamitous consequences.
6. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” – Suspense – April 27, 1943
Agnes Moorehead could make the phone book sound menacing. When Suspense matched Moorehead with macabre scripts by radio writer Lucille Fletcher, the resultant shows are white-knuckle affairs. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” is an ambiguous addition to the “women in peril” sub-genre of film and radio from the 1940s. Is it a ghost story? A psychological thriller? A hallucination? Listen and decide for yourself.
7. “Narrative About Clarence” – Suspense – March 16, 1944
Laird Cregar stars as a vengeful mesmerist. Need I say more? This episode tends to get overlooked among Suspense’s flashier chillers. Yet, its unremitting sense of dread and gut-punch ending make it one of the most haunting examples of radio horror I know.
8. “Fugue in C-Minor” – Suspense – June 1, 1944
Oh, Vincent Price. He always seems like a perfect husband. Until you look in his basement. Ida Lupino plays the damsel in distress who falls for his lethal charms in this grisly Gothic tale.
9. “Zero Hour” – Suspense – April 3, 1955
“Mommy… Daddy… Peek-a-boo!” Never have those words sounded more terrifying than in Ray Bradbury’s rich slice of Cold War-era paranoia. Children all over the nation are engrossed in a new game: “Invasion.” It’s sort of like “Simon Says,” only you take detailed orders from a Martian called Drill. One mother begins to wonder if it’s more than just make-believe.
10. “The Warning” – The Weird Circle – 1944
I confess: most episodes of The Weird Circle fail to thrill me. The series specialized in adaptations of classic literature with a spooky bent. Yet, it rarely summoned the moody atmosphere without which radio horror falls flat.
“The Warning,” however, is a hidden gem. Aristocratic Hester has visions of her missing brother… that lead her and her husband into a trap set by a wicked spurned suitor. This yarn offers just about everything you could wish for in a Gothic tale: premonitions of doom, walking cadavers, a magic ring, a twisted romantic obsession, a mist-shrouded castle, and a resourceful heroine… I find the possessive villain especially unsettling. Imagine having a stalker with an army of enslaved corpses at his disposal!
11. “The Beckoning Fair One” – Molle Mystery Theater – June 5, 1945
A writer rents a suite of rooms in an old house. His friend warns him of a malicious presence, but the author can’t resist the alluring influence of an elusive female spectre. What unspeakable things will her hypnotic spell drive our hero to do?
12. “The Creeping Wall” – Inner Sanctum – January 8, 1946
Best remembered for the groan-inducing puns of its ghoulish host Raymond, Inner Sanctum served up pulpy crime stories with high body counts. The series flirted with the supernatural, but episodes usually went out with a whimper, not a bang. Expect a lot of Scooby Doo-ish cop-outs if you ever go on an Inner Sanctum binge. “The Creeping Wall” is a favorite of mine because the real and the unreal blend to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s disturbing no matter how you read it.
To escape her stifling claustrophobia, a pathologically vain woman moves into a big old mansion with her devoted husband. Soon she feels the walls closing in on her. And the mysterious portrait of a beautiful dead woman seems to mock her. Don’t ask too many questions, dear listener. Just savor the gory, lurid, melodramatic fun.
Bonus episode! For a well-done example of the dark crime fiction that Inner Sanctum specialized in, I’d recommend “The Scream” (1950), which also has strong horror overtones.
13. “The Kabbala” – Murder at Midnight – December 30, 1946 Murder at Midnight is a fairly new discovery for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the darkness of its supernatural plots. A professor researching the occult obtains an oracle that can answer all his questions. But at what cost? A pall of doom hangs over this episode. It channels the same kind of black magic spell as M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”
14. “Death’s Worshipper” – Murder at Midnight – October 20, 1947
“It’s as though I were trapped in a spider’s web, waiting helplessly as the spider comes closer,” says Kate, our heroine, at the beginning of this episode. A creepy guy named Quentin insists he loves Kate, but she doesn’t love him. In fact, she fears him, his boasts of occult knowledge, and the threats he makes about destroying all those who stand in his way. Then people start turning up dead and horribly mutilated.
15. “Taboo” – Escape – December 3, 1947
Two friends traveling through Hungary go on the hunt for the beast that’s been killing the locals. Can there be any truth to the legend of the werewolf?
16. “Ancient Sorceries” – Escape – February 21, 1947
Algernon Blackwood is one of my favorite writers of weird fiction. His stories might deal with the dead’s grotesque intrusions into material things (as in “The Kit Bag” or “The Listener”) or with atavistic forces bubbling back up into the lives of modern individuals (as in “The Willows”). Surprisingly few American radio shows have adapted his work, but “Ancient Sorceries” does a swell job. In this eldritch tale, a traveler stumbles upon a strange Welsh village where remnants of the old pagan ways threaten to keep him from leaving.
17. “My Son, John” – Quiet, Please – November 28, 1948
After his only son, John, is reported a war casualty, a grieving father calls him back from the dead. I don’t want to spoil Wyllis Cooper’s twisty tale, a unique fusion of sadness and terror. Allow me to drop a hint: “My Son, John” takes a well-known horror movie monster and makes it scary and tragic on an intimate scale.
18. “The Lodger” – Mystery in the Air – August 14, 1948
There are few radio experiences quite so exhilarating as Peter Lorre going berserk for your listening pleasure. Lorre mustered up some world-class hysterics for his radio series Mystery in the Air, particularly for this adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s chiller. As a serial killer stalks the streets of London, a landlady suspects that her new tenant is the culprit. And he has his eye on her daughter.
19. “Mars Is Heaven” – Dimension X – July 7, 1950
Who doesn’t dream of being reunited with their dead loved ones? When astronauts land on Mars, that dream is realized. They embrace their long-lost family members and bask in nostalgic joy. What’s wrong with that? Well, just listen.
20. “The Hangman’s Rope” – Hall of Fantasy – January 5, 1952 The Hall of Fantasy impresses me with its utter disregard for the moral “rules” of classic horror. Usually good people survive and bad people die, right? Well, series creator Richard Thorne loved to kill off absolutely blameless individuals, reminding us that real evil respects no boundaries. In this episode, the ghost of a vicious executioner threatens two brothers who have the misfortune of crossing his path.
21. “The Dance of the Devil Dolls” – Hall of Fantasy – February 9, 1953
One night, two friends go out for a walk and run into a man frantically searching for a doll that looks like him and babbling about a dangerous old woman. The chance encounter plunges them into a living nightmare of witchy menace.
22. “Stranger in the House” – The Mysterious Traveler – January 29, 1952
A happily married couple move into a country house. Well, since I’ve got this episode on a horror list, you’ve probably guessed that there’s something evil lurking in that quaint little domicile. This story, though formulaic, wins points for its grim ending.
23. “The Screaming Skull” – Theater 10:30 – c. 1960s
A retired sailor tells the story of how he inadvertently caused a woman’s death. It wasn’t his fault, you see, but her spirit won’t forgive him. Or, more precisely, her skull won’t. The shrieks in this show are like nothing else I’ve heard in radio: ear-splitting howls of agony and rage. I also appreciate the pacing of this episode; it progresses from a cozy chat to a fever pitch of hopeless panic.
24. “The Squaw” – The Black Mass – August 8, 1966
An obnoxious American tourist at a historic European castle crushes a kitten to death in front of its mother. He should’ve known better than to visit the torture chamber while tracked by the fierce black momma cat. “Imagine a man who’s fought Apaches and grizzly bears bein’ afraid of a mad cat,” the culprit chuckles. Oh, do be afraid, puny human. Be very afraid.
Fair warning: If you love cats as I do, this will disturb the hell out of you. I think I can guess who you’ll be rooting for.
25. “Marble Knights” – Beyond Midnight – November 1, 1968
If you’ve never read E. Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble,” I envy you, because it lands one of the most devastating endings in all of horror fiction. This adaptation from the South African program Beyond Midnight gets the meandering tempo—and the sense of impending tragedy—just right. A loving couple move into a little cottage. She writes. He paints. But the local legends start to weigh heavily on the young wife’s mind. If only her husband would listen…
26. “The Intermediary” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – April 14, 1975
I have a weak spot for stories about houses that aren’t just haunted, but possessive. This is a splendid example, with a side of festering family dysfunction. A man inherits his childhood home, but his wicked stepmother’s will stipulates that he should actually live there. After he moves in with his wife, she starts behaving strangely and bad memories rise to the present.
27. “Sagamore Cottage” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – December 31, 1975
Yes, it’s another case of “unsuspecting couple moves into a quaint little place and discovers that an implacable evil wants to drain them of their life force.” Instead of giving any more details away, I’ll let you simmer in the suspense. The payoff is well worth it.
28. “You’re Going to Like Rodney” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 10, 1980
Poor Rodney is an orphan, shuffled from home to home. Strangely enough, whoever takes care of him seems to meet with a violent and untimely demise. This brilliant episode showcases radio’s unsurpassed ability to enlist your mind as an accomplice. Rodney never speaks, so it’s up to the listener to fill in the gaping black hole of his uncanny presence.
29. “Ringing the Changes” – Nightfall – October 31, 1980
Nightfall might be Canada’s best-kept secret. No series—none—was ever scarier. The level of auditory gore in an episode like “The Repossession” will blow your mind. Personally, I like my horror with a touch of the traditional, so the episodes I’ve chosen are more spine-tingling than gross. Don’t worry, though. There’s plenty to shudder over.
In “Ringing the Changes,” an older man and his young, beautiful wife take a trip to a countryside hamlet. They chose the wrong day of the year to make their visit. Can they escape before they’re forced to partake in the village’s hideous annual ceremony?
30. “Baby Doll” – Nightfall – December 18, 1981
If you’re as freaked out by dolls as I am, I’d advise you not to listen to this one alone. A husband brings his wife an antique doll as an anniversary present. To his dismay, the toy consumes their lives, as his wife dotes on it like a real child. An investigation into the doll’s history reveals dark forces at work.
31. “After Sunset” – Nightfall – April 29, 1983
A series of heinous murders in a small town signals the re-emergence of a demonic spirit. The elders recognize it. They fought it before, 50 years ago. Now they band together again to destroy it once and for all. The trouble is, the evil thing can possess the body of someone they know and trust.
Final bonus episode! “Donovan’s Brain” – Suspense – May 18 and 25, 1944
I couldn’t exclude Orson Welles from this list. (He might haunt me in protest.) I admit, I don’t find the film adaptation of Donovan’s Brain all that scary. But the radio adaptation is another story!
In this 2-part episode of Suspense, the brain of a ruthless tycoon dominates an obsessed scientist. The background sounds, suggesting the whirring, beeping, bubbling equipment of a laboratory, create a pitch-perfect sci-fi ambiance. And Welles’s two contrasting character voices—the doctor’s reedy, analytical narration and Donovan’s gruff, commanding murmurs—really deliver on the heebie-jeebies.
As our friend Raymond from Inner Sanctum would say, “Pleasant dreams, hmmmmmm…?”
This is the age of Olivia de Havilland. We’re just lucky to be living in it. Today, on July 1, 2016, she turns 100. To celebrate her talent, her courage, and her breathtakingly diverse legacy of screen performances, I embarked on an “Oliviathon” and vowed to watch or rewatch all of her films by the end of this month.
To mark her centennial, I’ve decided to list 100 reasons why I admire, worship, and adore her—starting with with 50 today.
What about the other 50? Just wait until I’ve watched my way through her filmography! Some of my reasons are frivolous, some have altered cinema history. I offer them here in no particular order. So please join me in giving thanks for a great actress and an inspiring woman.
1. She took on the studio system—and won her fellow actors greater rights and freedoms. Golden Age Hollywood wasn’t so golden for actors under contract to studios. If they chose not to do assigned roles, they could be put on suspension… and the term of that suspension would be added onto their existing contracts. Olivia de Havilland put her career on the line to fight her battle against studios that treated their artists like property.
After completing a disappointing melodrama called Devotion, Olivia thought she was finished with her constraining Warner Brothers contract. Jack Warner, however, insisted that the time she’d spent on suspension still counted against her. With lawyer Martin Gang, Olivia decided to take Warner Brothers to court for a practice that she considered unlawful. If she lost, she’d never work in Hollywood again.
The battle was a long an arduous one, as expertly described by the Self-Styled Siren. But Olivia’s gamble paid off. She emerged victorious—to seek out the complex roles she’s yearned for. Her colleagues could also revel in their new-found freedom. As Olivia recalls, “No one thought I would win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding.”
You know how stars today can choose their roles carefully and shape their careers? Well, that’s what de Havilland’s guts and brains earned for them back in the 1940s. As Bette Davis said, “Every actor in the business owes a debt of gratitude to Olivia de Havilland for taking us out of bondage.”
2. She can swear like a trucker if the occasion calls for it, as her bloopers indicate. Each year Warner Brothers created a humorous reel of “breakdowns” or “blow-ups” featuring snippets of stars flubbing their lines or on-set mishaps. There aren’t many clips of Olivia in these reels (I’m guessing because she knew her lines word-perfect most of the time). But there are a few choice moments, like this outtake from In This Our Life.
She seemed to have more blow-ups than usual in 1946—no doubt because she loathed Devotion, the silly, colorless costume melodrama that Warner assigned her. See if you can detect the note of hostility in her bloopers. This is unvarnished footage of a woman about to rebel, a lady feeling the weight of the last straw before she decided to sue her employers.
3. She spent much of WWII visiting military hospitals, including psychiatric wards. A Major Richardson asked her to talk to his patients, feeling that her sensitivity and kindness could “do some good” for men under severe pressure and shock from army conditions.
I’ll let her tell it in her own words…
Olivia toured hospitals from Alaska to Fiji on such a demanding schedule that she contracted pneumonia and almost died. So, the next time you watch one of her films and she’s risking her life to stay true to her values or struggling to hold her life together as the world falls apart around her, remember: her life was no less impressive, no less courageous.
Olivia with Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur J. Dodd at the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska, 1944.
4. Her wry winking motif in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). Whenever she winks, it fills me with such glee and hope for humanity that I want to hug the nearest object.
5. She has a splendid sense of humor—especially about herself. Her witty memoir Every Frenchman Has One is as jam-packed with bon mots as the Étoile is jam-packed with lunatic drivers. Or, in her words…
She begins the book by assuring the reader that she is not dead (“I’m not at all sure that you know that I’m alive…”). She moves on to cheerfully recount her often-mortifying adventures with the French language and culture, like that time she announced that French sailors are expensive (matelot, which means sailor, and matelas, which means mattress, sound awfully alike). Or the memory of being told that her accent was “légèrement Yugoslav.” Negotiating the minefield of niceties that is a French dinner party, she “really did want to die” after a series of faux pas involving a countess and an enormous brandy snifter.
My favorite anecdote involves her taking her young son to a French-dubbed screening of Robin Hood on the Champs Elysées. Afterwards, little Benjamin exclaimed, “Mamma, you spoke better French then than you do now!”
6. She gave us the best-ever onscreen depiction of a rabid fangirl in It’s Love I’m After (1937), a.k.a. the best screwball comedy you may have never heard of. Amusingly enough, Leslie Howard plays the matinee idol that Olivia’s character is stuck on, which gives this movie a delightful air of retrospective irony. In any case, it’s startlingly funny to watch future-Melanie tackle future-Ashley like this.
7. Her Withering Glare of Righteous Judgement from In This Our Life (1942). I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass just looking at these screencaps. Phew.
8. She was utterly unfazed by Hollywood’s bevy of man candy, at least according to this 1937 anecdote from Movie Classic magazine about Olivia and Robert Taylor after a radio performance. (Look, I know that fan mag articles should be taken with a grain of salt, but I do believe this one. And I sure want to believe it.)
9. Her epic chowing-down-on-a-chicken-wing scene in Robin Hood (1938).
10. Her astonishing range, from the fluffiest comedies to the grittiest dramas, from contemporary problem pictures to high adventures in faraway lands. I’d argue that her gifts as a comedienne are especially underrated. Had she not been one of the greatest dramatic actresses of her time, I have no doubt that she could’ve been a screwball comedy queen. Even when Olivia hated a role, she made something of it, stretching herself, learning, growing.
11. Her laugh. A strange, coy, undeniably merry laugh. The kind of exquisite laugh that makes you finally understand what poets are talking about when they throw around words like “silvery” and “sonorous” to describe the voices they adore. Some laughter brays, some laughter snarls, some chortles, some twitters. Olivia’s laughter sings and sparkles and tickles the ear. No wonder she’s gravitated towards the French language. Her ringing laughter sounds like pure joie de vivre.
12. She can fling a Shakespearean insult with verve and panache. As attested by this monument to feminine fury in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the first film Olivia ever made (though not the first released)!
13. She was no mere damsel in distress. Lest we forget, Arabella Bishop, her character in Captain Blood, repeatedly flouts convention to save Peter Blood from torture and death. In Robin Hood, Lady Marian risks her life to help Robin escape hanging and then to spy on wicked King John and his allies. While de Havilland didn’t write the scripts, she invested these characters (and her many 1930s and 1940s costume heroines) with an air of competence, intelligence, and courage and made their heroism utterly believable. She played her love interest roles not as shrieking innocents, but as brave, spirited women—worthy equals of the heroes who wooed them. I can’t say how much that meant to me as a little girl when I discovered her films.
14. She once spent her spare time calculating a formula for converting Centigrade into Fahrenheit. As she explains in her memoir, Every Frenchmen Has One, de Havilland was flummoxed by French thermometers, which only added to the anxiety of nursing her son through a fever in a foreign land. Determined to help other mothers in the same situation, “I stayed in bed in my room for twenty-four hours straight with a clutch of pencils and a quire of paper…. And finally, triumphantly, I found a formula which would translate Centigrade into Fahrenheit.” Remember, now, this happened in the days before all human knowledge was accessible through smartphones. De Havilland’s formula was published in a letter to the NY Herald Tribune. While a few mansplainers reared their heads in response, she’s proud of her formula. As she should be.
15. Her chilling double performance as good and evil twins Ruth and Terry in The Dark Mirror (1946). This psychoanalytic noir gave Olivia the chance to play against type as a jealous, charismatic murderess who nearly succeeds in gaslighting her gentle, suggestible sister.
What’s so uncanny about this Freudian thriller is that Olivia embodies two distinct characters with an identical appearance. We get to witness how different a friendly face can look when a malevolent personality lurks behind it. Ruth and Terry have recognizably different postures, voices, and mannerisms. Abetted by skillful camera trickery, The Dark Mirror opens the audience’s eyes to the subtle sorcery of Olivia’s craft, since we can see two of her creations share the frame.
16. The adorable dance that her daffy heiress character is doing here in Four’s a Crowd (1938) to provide a screwball comedy distraction.
17. Her raw, shattering, fearless, compassionate performance in The Snake Pit (1948).
18. She means what she says. When de Havilland started making films, she asked James Cagney for advice on screen acting. His advice: Always mean what you say. You can hear that she took those words to heart. She is so grounded in her text. She says things with startling sincerity—startling because sincerity is not common.
19. Her magnificent I-came-to-slay face and pose in this 1930s publicity portrait. That’s almost too much fierce for a single image to contain.
21. She was lobbying for strong female protagonists decades before it was cool to do so. While she made the most of her “love interest” roles, she didn’t want to keep on playing guests in other people’s stories (cough, cough, men’s stories, cough, cough) for the rest of her life. As she told the Academy of Achievement, “The life of the love interest is really pretty boring…. I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things.”
22. That scene between Melanie and Belle Watling in the carriage in Gone with the Wind (1939). De Havilland’s whole performance is flawless, filling the movie with an almost otherworldly grace. But, if I had to choose only one scene to show her artistry, this quiet scene in a film of bombast astonishes me much more than the burning of Atlanta. Her Melanie is one of those rare people with the intelligence and humility to understand that the smartest thing we human beings can do is to be kind to each other. Melanie knows that survival depends not only on Scarlett values—like ambition and chutzpa—but also on love and caring. Scarlett values can keep you from dying when your world’s gone to hell, but Melanie values will keep you truly alive.
23. The Heiress: it was her idea to make the story into a film, she selected the director, and she delivered a virtuoso dramatic performance that runs the gamut from devastated vulnerability to commanding authority, a performance that shows what she was fighting for all those long years. The freedom to make great art and to realize a vision of her own.
24. This clip of her dishing on her silent crush on Errol Flynn. (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build a time machine so I can slap Errol upside his head. “Dude, a snake? Seriously? Seek help!”)
25. The fact that she didn’t let Errol Flynn (and his ridiculously gorgeous face) derail her life plans. Respect. That must’ve taken superhuman discipline.
A pretty accurate depiction of Errol and Olivia’s relationship.
26. Her jaw-droppingly determined and terrifying build-up and climactic flip-out in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.Few people have out-Bette-Davised Bette Davis in a Bette Davis movie, but I think Olivia has in this instance.
27. The vivid expressions that she lavished even on a silly spread in a 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. She’s supposed to be writing “a letter to her beau,” the sort of things that fan mags of the 1930s routinely cooked up. But, damn, look at these faces. Olivia never does things by halves. You’d think she was auditioning for Juliet. Or Lady MacBeth. Or Ophelia. Or all three at once.
28. Her wrenching, poignant, and utterly convincing Oscar-winning transformation—in mind, body, and spirit—from dreamy young woman to embittered matron in To Each His Own (1946).
29. Her gift for conjuring the essence of a character through her voice alone—an ability which served her well on the radio. Listen to the brittle, nervous tones she brings to this 1944 Lux Radio Theater version of Suspicion.
(I wonder what sister Joan would have thought. And that’s is the only oblique reference I will be making to the de Havilland-Fontaine feud in this piece, thankyouverymuch.) For more excellent de Havilland radio performances, I refer you to this wonderful post on Once Upon a Screen.
31. Her exquisitely vulnerable performance in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which needs a DVD release as soon as possible. As the naïve American who marries a European gigolo in Mexico—unaware that he’s just looking to cross the border—de Havilland exudes wonder, tenderness, and innocent sensuality. The story’s redemptive arc works because you believe that something about this shy little schoolteacher can free a world-class operator (Charles Boyer, never better) from his hardened cynicism. She embodies the best of small-town America, in all its starry-eyed kindness and cluelessness. Really, see this movie if you get the chance.
32. This pout from Call It a Day (1935).
33. Just look at her cuddling with these cats.
And, hey, I’m all for equal-opportunity snuggling. Here’s Olivia with a puppy on the set of Hold Back the Dawn.
34. Based on these publicity stills for Captain Blood, she totally should’ve had her own swashbuckler movie where she wore boots and a cutlass and took down the patriarchy. (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)
35. She illuminates even the clunkiest, dullest films with passion and pathos. Take Anthony Adverse (1936). Now, I love Fredric March, but he looks bored to his knee breeches and buckle shoes by this unwieldy literary adaptation. Claude Rains does his best wicked Claude Rains, and Gale Sondergaard does her best wicked Gale Sondergaard. It’s Olivia who delivers the film’s most memorable tearjerking moment (in my opinion) with her devastating, “Goodbye, Anthony…” whispered from the stage of a Paris opera house.
36. This early 1940s home movie footage of her acting goofy in a pool with John Huston. Wow.
37. She can rock a corset and an eyepatch simultaneously, as this still from That Lady (1955) shows.
38. She makes good girls so interesting. In many of Olivia’s best movies, she’s “stuck” with the part that would make many actresses cringe: the nice sister, the quiet daughter, the dutiful friend. And she tackled those parts while going up against stars playing flashier (ostensibly meatier) roles—nymphomaniacs, shysters, shut-ins, sociopathic Southern belles. Many actors would be grateful merely to register as a blip on the screen against such a gallery of eccentrics.
Olivia, however, never took good girls for granted. She underpinned their goodness with a rich psychological tapestry, woven in a unique pattern for each one. Roy in In This Our Life is a very different woman from Melanie in Gone with the Wind and from Emmy in Hold Back the Dawn—though they share many qualities and face similar situations.
Goodness never equates to dullness for Olivia, as for many other actresses. We often assume that a girl is good because she lacks imagination, because it never occurred to her to be bad. She brought a sense of interiority, of free will to her good-girl parts. They choose their course in life—for reasons specific to their characters—often more consciously and clear-sightedly than their sinful sisters/friends/rivals/relatives. And that’s why de Havilland’s good girls remain fascinating and complex—and tend to eclipse the flashier characters around them.
39. The seductive, enigmatic allure she channels in My Cousin Rachel (1952).
40. She won over Bette Davis as a friend. And that was not an easy thing to do. As de Havilland says, “The first time I saw Bette Davis she scared the daylights out of me.” I’ll let these two legendary pals tell the story for themselves…
41. Her luminous beauty in Technicolor. Yes, that sounds shallow, but it takes a hell of a lot of poise and grit to seem serene and glamorous under blindingly bright and swelteringly hot lights!
42. Her intrepid strength in the little-known made-for-TV movie The Screaming Woman (1972). I watched this on YouTube while going on a 1970s thriller binge (as one does) and hardly strayed from the edge of my seat until the denouement. Olivia’s portrayal of an older woman who solves a grisly mystery while questioning her own sanity not only provides gripping entertainment, but also sends a poignant message about society’s treatment of its elders.
43. She immersed herself in a foreign culture—and advises her fellow Americans to do likewise.
44. Her searing take on Lady in a Cage (1962): “a depiction of the aimless violence of our era.”
45. How absolutely believable Olivia makes it that Melanie got up from her sickbed, grabbed a saber, and toddled out, ready to hack a would-be-thief-and-rapist Union deserter to pieces. Look at the stone-cold conviction on her face. Sure, she’s sweet and gentle—BUT DO NOT MESS AROUND WITH HER FAMILY OR FRIENDS. Even Scarlett’s all, “Wow, I majorly underestimated how badly Melanie could mess somebody up.”
46. She injects boundless enthusiasm into Alibi Ike (1935), her first released film. I can’t think of many kind things to say about Alibi Ike as a whole, except that it’s mercifully short. Olivia, by her own admission, “detested” making it. But you’d never know that from the sweet, spunky dream girl she incarnates on the screen. She almost makes this uneven baseball romp bearable. Almost.
47. She used her art and talent in the service of a good cause, hoping that The Snake Pit would help to lessen the stigma of mental illness. As she told Time magazine, “We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been the hardest pressed.”
48. This enchanting moment from Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), her first movie in Technicolor.
49. Her ferocious intensity in a screen test for Max Reinhardt’s unproduced film project, Danton. She was just 19, but the maturity and conviction of her acting blows me away. Warner Brothers had a powerhouse dramatic actress on their hands. They didn’t know it. Thankfully, Olivia did.
(You can watch this stunning clip as a supplement on the DVD release of A MidsummerNight’s Dream.)
50. Having achieved her centennial, de Havilland is still looking forward. In the most recent issue of TCM’s Now Playing guide, Robert Osborn reveals that Livvie announced, “I’ve changed my goal. I’ve decided I want to live to at least 110.”