Ralph Bellamy

The Narrow Corner (1933, Alfred E. Green)

The Narrow Corner runs seventy minutes; it speeds along. Robert Presnell Sr.’s script has somewhat lengthy, complicated scenes where he tries to fit in information. The movie doesn’t need all that information–the subplot about Reginald Owen translating a Portuguese epic poem–because director Green isn’t going to do anything with it.

The film has a somewhat peculiar structure–it starts with an affably odious South Seas captain, Arthur Hohl in a half great performance. He’s to set sail–for a year–with a single passenger Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is on the run, but it’s all hush hush.

Once they’re underway, things skip almost immediately to Hohl and Fairbanks bringing Dudley Digges onboard. Digges is a doctor who’s grown tired of his particular island and wants passage somewhere else. Hohl’s got a stomach ailment, leading to non sequitor burping throughout the film.

Narrow Corner never builds the relationship between Hohl and Fairbanks. It starts to build one between Hohl and Digges, but soon gives it up. Digges and Fairbanks’s relationship is going to be important (ostensibly) for the third act; it would’ve been nice if Presnell or Green cared. They don’t. Digges is underutilized in Narrow Corner. His acting style is a lot quieter than Hohl or even Fairbanks. He gives the film its weight.

Only it’s off and on because once Digges is onboard, the ship goes into a storm and Fairbanks has to captain her all himself. Nihilist Hohl sleeps below as the first-time seaman is on helm. And Digges is busy with his nightly opium (while pre-Code, Narrow Corner still doesn’t delve into that subject at all).

The storm sequence has phenomenal editing from Herbert I. Leeds and some great special effects. The film doesn’t have good projection shots, but all the other effects are excellent. Including the miniatures for the seafaring action–the storm or when the ship has to navigate a treacherous reef.

The success of the storm scene should let the film coast for a bit. And it does, but that bit is only a few minutes because Presnell and Green rush to introduce some new characters. The ship’s anchored off an island. Fairbanks thinks it’s uninhabited, so does a nude swimming scene. The great lengths the film goes through to hide Fairbanks from the torso down behind scenery is amusing but only because it’s so distracting. Presnell and Green severely overestimate the dramatic traction they’re getting out of implied nudity.

Turns out the island isn’t uninhabited, but it’s actual a Dutch settlement. There are (unseen) plantations around and a variety of new cast members. They’re all related. Owen the poem translator is father to Patricia Ellis, who meets naked swimming Fairbanks and immediately enchants him. William V. Mong is Owen’s father-in-law. Mong’s an old man (in a lot of old age makeup) who used to be a scumbag South Seas captain like Hohl. But now they’re rich.

Ralph Bellamy is Ellis’s secret fiancé. It doesn’t end up being clear she knows they’re engaged. Her character is exceptionally problematic. Ellis doesn’t do a great job with it, but there might not be a way to do a better one given how the part is written and how events unfold.

Once Fairbanks meets Ellis and Bellamy, Narrow Corner starts running toward the finish. Sure, it’s only the beginning of the second act, but Presnell can write long enough scenes to fill the runtime. Fairbanks and Bellamy become buddies, with Fairbanks even moving into Bellamy’s huge empty (and mostly) unseen estate. Narrow Corner occasionally will hint at wanting to examine the cultural situation–all the white people, regardless of their station, exploiting the native peoples–but then Presnell thinks better of it and moves along.

It’s too bad, but not unexpected. Narrow Corner is light on character development. Fairbanks doesn’t really get any. He just doesn’t talk much. When he does have a monologue, it’s therefore important. It’s the meat of the part. Fairbanks does okay with it. He’s got three big reveals; two of them are identical in content, which is its own problem. The first monologue is to Ellis; Fairbanks narrates a flashback. The flashback, shown in an awkward split screen, has some well-cut action and probably Green’s most engaged direction. A prologue might have given things away but it also would’ve given Fairbanks a better arc.

The other two monologues–including the third act one, which is nowhere near as dramatic as anyone pretends–are from Fairbanks to Digges. Digges is trying to tell Fairbanks something about the world. Fairbanks doesn’t care. See, Ellis is throwing herself at him and even if Fairbanks does think Bellamy’s swell, a man’s just a man.

If Ellis’s writing were better, if her performance were better, if she and Fairbanks had any chemistry, everything would be different. Instead, Narrow Corner is a nicely acted, adequately directed, half attempt at grand melodrama. All of the actors could excel if the script would just give them the opportunity. Even with the monologues, Fairbanks doesn’t have a better part than anyone else. Worse, in fact, than Digges. And almost Hohl; with the exception of banter with Mong about who’s the more odious white man South Seas captain, Hohl gets zip in the second half of the movie.

Inglorious given he started it.

But still. Not bad at all.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred E. Green; screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Herbert I. Leeds; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Fred Blake), Dudley Digges (Doctor Saunders), Arthur Hohl (Captain Nichols), Patricia Ellis (Louise Frith), Ralph Bellamy (Eric Whittenson), Reginald Owen (Mr. Frith), Willie Fung (Ah Kay), and William V. Mong (Jack Swan).


The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)

From the first scene of Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski establishes the style he’s going to use until the big reveal at the end. He shoots a lot of over-the-shoulder shots with people moving around out of frame, causing a startling effect when the viewer finds out they’re now in a completely different location. He does it in the first scene with Elisha Cook Jr., who might also be there to encourage unease in the viewer.

The film runs over two hours, but never feels long. There’s a lengthy period at the beginning before Mia Farrow–the titular mother–gets pregnant, involving she and husband John Cassavetes moving into a new apartment. It’s sort of a relationship drama at that point. Cassavetes is the struggling actor, Farrow’s his supportive wife. Throw in the odd neighbors–Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer–and there’s nothing particularly ominous about the film.

Except Farrow has these dreams–three times in the film and Polanski does wonders with them. There’s never a question of whether what’s happening to Farrow is real or not; Polanski never has Farrow outright question it either. It’s like he cut all the scenes with her wondering if she’s crazy and just leaves the before and after. It creates a wonderful effect.

Farrow’s amazing, as is Cassavetes. Gordon’s good, but the role’s not hard. Blackmer and Ralph Bellamy are outstanding. At times, Polanski treats Blackmer like the only real person in the picture besides Farrow. Again, great result.

Rosemary’s fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roman Polanski; screenplay by Polanski, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Sam O’Steen and Bob Wyman; music by Krzysztof Komeda; production designer, Richard Sylbert; produced by William Castle; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Mia Farrow (Rosemary Woodhouse), John Cassavetes (Guy Woodhouse), Ruth Gordon (Minnie Castevet), Sidney Blackmer (Roman Castevet), Maurice Evans (Hutch), Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Sapirstein), Victoria Vetri (Terry), Patsy Kelly (Laura-Louise), Elisha Cook Jr. (Mr. Nicklas), Emmaline Henry (Elise Dunstan), Charles Grodin (Dr. Hill), Hanna Landy (Grace Cardiff), Phil Leeds (Dr. Shand), D’Urville Martin (Diego) and Hope Summers (Mrs. Gilmore).


The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, Erle C. Kenton)

The Ghost of Frankenstein is pretty bad stuff. Running less than seventy minutes, it’s unbearably boring from the twenty-five minute mark, once the picture focus on Cedric Hardwicke.

Ghost opens with villagers pursuing Bela Lugosi’s evil hunchback. Though awful, Lugosi’s at least an enthusiastically vile character. Hardwicke–playing a neurosurgeon with his own castle (he’s a Frankenstein, after all)–is bad and boring.

Besides the subplot (if one wants to be gracious and call it a subplot) involving the Frankenstein monster (Lon Chaney Jr. here) befriending a child, played by Janet Ann Gallow, the best thing in the main part of the film is the flashback to the original Frankenstein. It’s never clear, but the flashback infers Lugosi was the hunchbacked assistant in that film. Only, he wasn’t… Dwight Frye doesn’t just appear in the flashback, he shows up at the beginning of the film too, along with some other Universal monster movie regulars.

Also lousy is Lionel Atwill. He and Hardwicke have some painful scenes together.

The end’s pretty cool for a few minutes, when Lugosi’s evil brain ends up in the body of the monster. Chaney has a great time mouthing the words and doing a Lugosi impression.

Ralph Bellamy keeps a straight face for his role as town prosecutor (who knew Eastern European villages had legal systems based on the United States) and Evelyn Ankers is okay.

Scott Darling’s script’s disastrous; Kenton has a handful of decent shots. Nice photography of bad sets.

Ghost is ghastly.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Scott Darling, based on a story by Eric Taylor; directors of photography, Elwood Bredell and Milton R. Krasner; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by George Waggner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cedric Hardwicke (Ludwig Frankenstein), Ralph Bellamy (Erik), Lionel Atwill (Doctor Bohmer), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Evelyn Ankers (Elsa Frankenstein), Janet Ann Gallow (Cloestine Hussman), Barton Yarborough (Dr. Kettering), Doris Lloyd (Martha), Leyland Hodgson (Chief Constable), Olaf Hytten (Herr Hussman), Holmes Herbert (Magistrate) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Monster).


Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941, James P. Hogan)

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring‘s title confuses me for a couple reasons. First, Ralph Bellamy’s Ellery Queen disappears for long stretches of the seventy-minute runtime. When he does show up, he usually makes a mistake or overlooks something, then someone else comes in and gets the investigation back on track. Second is the Murder Ring. There isn’t one in the movie. Not in either obvious usage of the word “ring.”

Most of Murder Ring takes place at a hospital–wait a second, they never solve the inciting mystery in the film. It gets so confused, everyone (including the viewer, hopefully) forgets.

Anyway, most of the picture involves two bumbling crooks, played by Paul Hurst and Tom Dugan, trying to escape from the hospital. They’re worried they’re murder suspects, so they assault cops, kidnap girls and so on to escape and prove their innocence.

Did I mention Murder Ring is really dumb?

The hospital hijinks probably take more than a third of the runtime–maybe forty minutes of it–and then the case gets solved in the last fifteen. Bellamy doesn’t do much solving. His assistant, an appealing Margaret Lindsay does most of the work… even though she’s not much brighter than Bellamy. They do have decent chemistry though.

Mona Barrie and James Burke give the best supporting performances. Hurst’s W.C. Fields impression gets tiresome.

Hogan’s direction is adequate, but Dwight Caldwell’s editing is awful.

It’s probably most useful as an example of why whodunits shouldn’t be slapstick.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James P. Hogan; screenplay by Eric Taylor and Gertrude Purcell, based on a story by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell; music by Zee Zahler; produced by Larry Darmour; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Ellery Queen), Margaret Lindsay (Nikki Porter), Charley Grapewin (Insp. Queen), Mona Barrie (Nurse Marian Tracy), Paul Hurst (Page), James Burke (Sgt. Velie), Leon Ames (John Stack), George Zucco (Dr. Edwin L. Jannery), Blanche Yurka (Mrs. Augusta Stack), Charlotte Wynters (Miss Fox), Tom Dugan (Lou Thomas), Olin Howland (Dr. Williams), Dennis Moore (Dr. Dunn), Jean Fenwick (Alice Stack) and Pierre Watkin (Crothers).


Blind Adventure (1933, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

Blind Adventure is a genial, nearly successful comedy thriller. Robert Armstrong, playing an unexpectedly wealthy working class American who’s vacationing in London, heads out into the fog and finds himself on a wild night. He encounters espionage, British society, a damsel in distress (Helen Mack) and trifle.

Armstrong and Mack are wonderful together (they soon reunited in Son of Kong, along with director Schoedsack and writer Ruth Rose) and the film’s failures are mostly disappointing because it should have launched a franchise for the pair. They’re Nick and Nora, but a year early and less blue blooded. They also have a fabulous third wheel in Roland Young, a burglar they meet.

Rose’s script has some good lines and a brisk pace. It’s not a comedy revolution—though its Marx Brothers influences are interesting in the context of a straight comedy thriller—but it should have been made into a better film.

It’s Schoedsack who primarily fails here. While the film’s modest budget is obvious (any London sights would be obscured by the dense fog), Schoedsack is still essentially inept. His comedy direction is atrocious—he holds the reaction shots to jokes maybe three times longer than he should, so long one wonders if there’s going to be a second joke.

Ralph Bellamy and John Miljan are both good in small roles. Beryl Mercer has a scene and a half with Armstrong and they’re quite funny.

But Armstrong and Mack are just magical; they deserved better treatment than Adventure gives them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; written by Ruth Rose and Robert Benchley; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; produced by David Lewis; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Richard Bruce), Helen Mack (Rose Thorne), Roland Young (Holmes), Ralph Bellamy (Jim Steele), John Miljan (Regan), Beryl Mercer (Elsie), Tyrell Davis (Gerald Fairfax), Henry Stephenson (Maj. Archer Thorne), Laura Hope Crews (Lady Rockingham), Frederick Sullivan (The General), Desmond Roberts (Harvey), Charles Irwin (Bill), Forrester Harvey (Coffee Wagon Proprietor), Marjorie Gateson (Mrs. Grace Thorne), John Warburton (Reggie) and Phyllis Barry (Gwen).


Before Midnight (1933, Lambert Hillyer)

Ralph Bellamy gets top billing here, but he doesn’t deserve it. I’m always stunned when, with a reasonably early feature motion picture like Before Midnight, the filmmakers are clearly exhausted with the genre.

Midnight‘s a big house mystery (enclosed setting, certain number of suspects) but the opening establishes the majority of the film is set sometime in the past. Bellamy’s character could have died of old age for all the audience knows, as there’s one guy telling another a story about this great mystery, which we then see.

The mystery seems like it might be an interesting one for a while, as Bellamy interrogates each suspect, one by one; it seems like he’s going to solve the case out based on the interviews, a unique film approach.

Instead, Bellamy amiably investigates in the standard mystery fashion, giving some of the supporting cast a little time to themselves. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is boring and–even at only an hour–the film feels way too long. Because of the structure, the suspects don’t have any subplots not related directly to the murder and, because he’s not really a character, Bellamy doesn’t get a love interest. It’s all about the mystery.

And the mystery isn’t bad, just not good enough to carry the entire hour.

Hillyer’s a rather indistinct director. I don’t remember a single well-directed moment in the film (but no badly directed ones either).

Good performances from June Collyer, Claude Gillingwater, Betty Blythe and Otto Yamaoka help a lot.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; written by Robert Quigley; director of photography, John Stumar; edited by Otto Meyer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Inspector Steve Trent), June Collyer (Janet Holt), Claude Gillingwater (John Fry), Bradley Page (Howard B. Smith), Betty Blythe (Mavis Fry), Arthur Pierson (Doctor David R. Marsh), George Cooper (Stubby), William Jeffrey (Edward Arnold), Joseph Crehan (Captain Frank Flynn) and Otto Yamaoka (Kono).


Below the Sea (1933, Albert S. Rogell)

Below the Sea really should be good. It’s got a great–somewhat startling when viewed today–opening, it’s got excellent special effects and Albert S. Rogell has some fantastic composition. But it all goes wrong.

The opening is set in 1917 on a German U-boat. It’s carrying gold through the Caribbean and gets sunk following a battle with an American ship. Why the ship’s carrying gold is never explained–not in English anyway. That startling opening is the lack of English. The whole scene on the U-boat plays in German, which makes Below the Sea very different and very unexpected. The prologue’s just great.

Then the descent begins. Frederick Vogeding–the U-boat captain who survives–teams with deep sea diver Ralph Bellamy to recover the gold. There’s a useless sequence with their first attempt to get it, which fails. What’s so strange about this part of the film is how it’s just a time waster. It’s got some impressive storm at sea special effects, but there’s no narrative value.

But it’s a lot better than what follows.

For all the great shots Rogell can compose, he can’t direct actors. Vogeding’s the only principal who turns in a good performance. Fay Wray and Bellamy are both terrible. When their romance begins, their performances only get worse. Writer Jo Swerling seems to think his characters are charming, but neither are. Swerling establishes Bellamy early on as a violent, murderous thug. Exactly the protagonist one wants to spend a movie with. Wray’s character is just annoying and poorly written; she’d be likable if Wray’s performances was any good.

The film’s moderately watchable just because of the treasure hunt aspect, with the fine underwater photography and the nice special effects sequence at the end–Bellamy, in diving suit, versus a giant octopus (to save Wray, of course)–the gravy. And Rogell never disappoints in terms of composition. He’s always framing something beautifully, but the movie just gets worse and worse.

The predictability is a real problem, but worse is the lack of interest in the film’s story. While the treasure hunt aspect is the main plot, there’s a rather interesting subplot about scientific exploration of the ocean. Maybe it isn’t interesting, maybe it only is compared to the terrible romance.

And the romance is a real problem. Wray is presented as a headstrong, independent woman–who needs the rough and tumble Bellamy to break her of that independence. The lack of sympathy the movie tries to kindle for Bellamy is kind of interesting, but not really worth any examination or consideration. Every chance the movie has to excel, it fails. The script’s poor, the leads who should be good are quite the opposite and the director doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.

It’s a disappointment to be sure, but I’m not sure if it’s surprising for anything other than the bad performances from Wray and Bellamy, both of whom I expected to be good. I don’t even want to think about how badly they failed chemistry.

That German language opening, however, is real interesting.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Albert S. Rogell; written by Jo Swerling; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Jack Dennis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Steve McCreary), Fay Wray (Diana Templeton), Frederick Vogeding (Captain Von Boulton), Esther Howard (Lily), Paul Page (Bert Jackson), Trevor Bland (Horace Waldridge) and William J. Kelly (Dr. Chapman).


The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner)

The Wolf Man‘s most lasting influence–beyond the advantages of using Larry Talbot as a synonym (Pynchon did it in Vineland) and the endlessly suffering protagonist–has to be the music. I noticed parts both John Williams (for The Empire Strikes Back) and Danny Elfman (for Batman Returns) lifted. The music is an essential part of the film, as many of Lon Chaney Jr.’s scenes are almost silent film style solo ones, where Chaney visualizes his internal turmoil.

Director Waggner’s style works for the film and against. There’s little attempt to create any sense of the uncanny. Between the booming music and Waggner’s fast-paced chase scenes, the film rushes toward its conclusion. All subtlety is lost in the last act, which is unfortunate, since the film started with so much.

Behind the film’s big story and special effects is the quiet one between Chaney–as returning, long absent son–and Claude Rains–top-billed as the father (and seventeen years older than Chaney). Rains has some lengthy monologues, which he’s good at delivering, and some other scenes involving Chaney, but at the end, when the two of them finally have a talk, The Wolf Man reveals itself. Rains then gets another nice scene on the same subject, only without Chaney. Had the film followed Rains, through his conflict over his son returning to his concern for the son’s sanity, to the fear the son might be right, The Wolf Man would have been high psychological drama.

Similarly, had it followed just Chaney, it would have been a stranger entering stranger and stranger lands.

As a mix of the two, it’s awkward. The big script holes don’t help either. There’s no consistency on how to prevent werewolf transformations or how often they occur. The film’s in a hurry to get done and it plays way too loose with the time it covers.

The other primary aspect of the film–the romance between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers–actually gets enough attention. Though Chaney and Ankers infamously did not get along, they appear to have lots of chemistry in the film, to the point Ankers’s absolute devotion (in the third act, after being off-screen for a while) makes perfect sense. Chaney’s transition through the film from utterly assured to abjectly despondent is one of the more fluid character progressions I can remember. Ankers helps out quite a bit.

Curt Siodmak’s script is best during those scenes with Ankers or Rains. The overuse of the gypsies is questionable as is the wasted supporting cast. The film’s filled with characters–Universal apparently needed roles for Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles–and it doesn’t have room for them. While Bellamy’s got a great, unintentionally absurd line, the film never–after mentioning it–discusses he and Chaney being childhood friends. William’s a superfluous doctor and Knowles should form a third side in a love triangle (for Ankers’s affection) but strangely does not.

There are a lot of ideas in The Wolf Man, but few of them are explored. Even the ending is strangely undercooked. The film stops rather than ends, but as it’s more in the hands of non-characters Bellamy and William, there’s really nothing else it can do.

Waggner’s got a gimmick he uses–blocking some of the frame with a lamp base or a tree–and, though it gets obvious, he uses it to great effect occasionally. The sight of Rains striking the unknown, even though the music is too bombastic, is haunting.

I was going to end there, but realized I haven’t really lauded Chaney enough. From his first moment on film, there’s nothing he can’t do here–and the script asks for a lot. He’s got to have all that turmoil in the middle and the end, but the beginning requires him to be completely different. Chaney does it all–and those silent-but-for-music scenes, as he discovers his feet getting furry or the wolf tracks in his bedroom, are amazing. He’s under-appreciated.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Waggner; written by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Ted J. Kent; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Warren William (Dr. Lloyd), Ralph Bellamy (Col. Montford), Patric Knowles (Frank Andrews), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Evelyn Ankers (Gwen Conliffe), J.M. Kerrigan (Charles Conliffe), Fay Helm (Jenny Williams), Forrester Harvey (Twiddle) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man).


Flight Angels (1940, Lewis Seiler)

When the studio system collapsed, so did the B-picture promotion system–a star of a B-picture could end up the star of an A-picture… For example, Jimmy Stewart started out in B-pictures, so did Eleanor Parker, so did Humphrey Bogart (I think). Occasionally, B-pictures made A-picture money (The Thin Man). It was a good system and there hasn’t been anything like it since–the rash of soap opera actors going mainstream did have a few good results (Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche) but none lasting–and that phenomenon has ended. It was never as successful as the promotion system and its disappearance is unfortunate, because it did produce good actors.

Flight Angels has an odd mix of actors, career-wise. Virginia Bruce, the star, was on the downswing. Her romantic interest, Dennis Morgan, was on the upswing (he ended up in musicals no less). Jane Wyman has a supporting role and runs wild with it, making the best of the script and turning in the film’s best performance. These actors’ success in light of the script–which alternates between a commercial for American Airlines and an astoundingly sexist portrayal of working women–is Flight Angels biggest surprise. The film doesn’t start out as anything but the commercial, so when the flight attendants–sorry, stewardesses–all get together to talk about marrying rich passengers and scream and run around and… fight (there’s a cat fight in Flight Angels), I couldn’t help but dream of a showing of Flight Angels with a debate afterwards between Margaret Cho and some female Conservative. Many A-features, for example, have a strong sexist attitude running through them (The Women, The Philadelphia Story), but I guess studios reserved the blatancy and cat fights for the B-features. Maybe not many theaters on the coasts played B-features. I suppose it’d be worth investigating. Oh, I forgot… not a history major anymore.

Still, Flight Angels is a well-handled film. Director Seiler has a lot of experience and the film even had one really nice shot. The special effects by Byron Haskin (who later directed) aren’t as nice as the aerial photography. On one hand, Flight Angels is an interesting historical document, on the other, it does have some nice performances from a likable cast. Either way, it’s a diverting seventy minutes.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Maurice Leo, from a story by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay; director of photography, L. William O’Connell; edited by James Gibbon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Virginia Bruce (Mary Norvell), Dennis Morgan (Chick Farber), Wayne Morris (Artie Dixon), Ralph Bellamy (Bill Graves), Jane Wyman (Nan Hudson) and John Litel (Dr. Barclay).


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