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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Lorna Doone ( 1934 )

R.D. Blackmore's classic novel "Lorna Doone" was brought to the big screen in 1934 for the first time as a talking picture. The thrilling romance was made into a silent film five times before ATP Studios made this production which stars John Loder and Victoria Hopper. 
Network Distributing released Lorna Doone on DVD in 2014 in Volume 11 of their Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. Usually, this company does excellent transfers but this time the film could have been restored better. Many of the scenes were dark and grainy. It is difficult then to watch a movie without judging it based on its transfer, especially since so many Hollywood films from this same time period have been beautifully restored through Warner Archives. 

Nevertheless, Lorna Doone is a fascinating story, a true classic romance, and this particular adaptation - although quaint - captures the excitement of the tale and the period setting ( the English moorlands of the 1600s ) beautifully. John Loder stars as John Ridd, a farmer whose father was murdered by a thieving band of rogues known as the Doones. The law has never been able to capture any of the Doones because they live in their own community in a valley hidden away from other villages. One day, as a young boy, John is rescued by a pretty girl near a waterfall. He never forgets her and years later, when he grows to manhood, he catches sight of her again near that same waterfall. Her name is Lorna Doone and she is the adopted daughter of the king of the thieves, Counsellor Doone. 
A love blossoms between the two even though Lorna is aware that she could never leave the Doones, especially to wed one of the Ridds. John sees his only chance of marrying Lorna would be to kidnap her before she is betrothed to another member of the rogues....which he does, sparking an all-out war between the families. 

Lorna Doone was filmed on location in Exmoor, Somerset, England and this really brings the rural atmosphere of the novel to life. There is a thrilling scene near the end when John Ridd rides on horseback chasing after the vile Carver Doone to fight with him singlehandedly. The music in the film is also lovely. Composer C. Armstrong Gibbs interspersed the dramatic story with lyrical pieces that were inspired by the music of the 17th-century. 

A young Roger Livesey has a supporting role as Tom Faggus, a lovable rascal who has his eyes on John's sister Anne, played by Margaret Lockwood who was making her film debut. Lockwood would play a highwayman herself in one of her most famous films, The Wicked Lady ( 1945 ), which was also set in 17th-century England. 

Roy Emerton portrays the evil Carver Doone and also in the cast is George Curzon ( as King James II ), Edward Rigby and Mary Clare. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Anna ( 1951 )

Silvana Mangano was a beautiful and talented actress who was popular in Italian films of the 1950s, when Italy was going through its post-war film renaissance. This sensuous bombshell ascended to stardom after a sizzling performance in the drama Bitter Rice ( 1949 ). She married Dino De Laurentiis, an emerging producer, and he cast her in some fine of which was Anna ( 1951 ). 

This melodrama, like many Italian films, conveys raw emotions in such a frank and simple manner. It switches back and forth between the present life of a novice nun Sister Anna ( Mangano ), who works as a nurse at a busy hospital in Milano, and her steamy past life. Anna was a nightclub entertainer at a popular cafe. She had a sexual yen for Vittorio ( Vittorio Gassman ) and would often spend her nights with him. But one day she meets a rich farmer named Andrea ( Raf Vallone ) who does not see her as an easy pick-up but respects her and treats her as the beautiful young woman she is. 

After a brief courtship, he asks her to visit his mother and proposes marriage, but Anna, who is still spending her nights with Vittorio, feels unworthy of the gentle-hearted Andrea. It is this unworthiness that eventually leads her to become a nun...or so we are led to think. What makes Anna such an interesting film is that there is a lot of unspoken dialogue which makes it ripe for interpreting the story in various ways. 
Anna may have chosen to become a nun because she felt she was a "bad influence" and would never have made Andrea a good wife or it may have been because she felt a true calling to help others as a nurse. She hints several times that this is the reason and yet she makes her decision to join the holy order prior to knowing anything about nursing. It seems as though it is the confinement of the walls of the hospital that appeals to her more, or perhaps the chance to atone for her past through service to others. 

Anna was beautifully filmed by director Alberto Lattuada. It is a wonderfully soapy melodrama bubbling over with fine performances from all of the principal cast members. Silvana Mangano gives an especially appealing performance. She was such a beauty in her time and, like many of the stars of silent era pictures, she was able to convey so much through her eyes alone. 

Raf Vallone, the leading man, was a handsome actor with great virility. Unlike actors like Marcello Mastroianni or Vittorio Gassmann, Raf Vallone does not look like a movie star. He was a representative of Italy's "everyman" and often took on roles of, soldiers, miners, machinists. Yet, no matter what role he was given or how brief it was, he always made a memorable impression. 

Vittorio Gassmann, Raf Vallone, and Silvana Mangano all had major roles in Bitter Rice so Anna marked a reunion for these actors. Also starring in the film is Silvana Mangano's two sisters - Patrizia, who plays Anna's sister Luisa, and Natascia, who portrays Andrea's younger sister. The wonderful actress and voice-over performer Tina Lattanzi is Andrea's mother and two great French actors, Jacques Dumesnil and Gaby Morlay, play in the hospital sequences as, respectably, the doctor and Mother Superior. 
Anna also features two excellent nightclub music sequences where Silvana dances and sings to the beautiful "Non Dimenticar" - popularized in the US by Nat King Cole - and the enticing baiĆ£o "El Negro Zumbon" ( click here to watch ). This song became an instant classic in Italy and Spain, but it was not until 2004 that American audiences heard it through Pink Martini's rendition. 

Anna is often overshadowed by other Italian film classics of the era, but it was a huge commercial success at the time and its entertainment value has not diminished over the years. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book Review: Mister Roger's Neighborhood - A Visual History

For over thirty years, Fred Rogers fostered the imaginations of little tykes across America through his PBS children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. He helped teach these youngsters lessons about growing, loving, and being happy just for being the unique individuals that they are. He also took them on some fascinating tours of factories to see how things are made and led them into the wonderful world of fantasy through the daily stops in the town of Make-Believe. 

Clarkson Potter Publishers latest release, Mister Rogers Neighborhood - A Visual History, gives us Mr. Rogers fans a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at this series. The 334-page book is just what its name implies...a visual history. It is brimming with photographs, handwritten notes from Fred, script excerpts, and set design sketches from the show. The book is a very easy read with a well-structured design and includes wonderful interviews with the cast members, producer, director, and other crew. Tim Lybarger, who runs the website The Mister Rogers Neighborhood Archive, helped write the book along with authors Melissa Wagner and Jenna McGuiggan. And Tom Hanks, who stars as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, writes a lovely forward.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood - A Visual History ( $23.99 ) is a must-have for any TV fan or anyone who grew up watching this beloved show. There is so much to find out about the characters on the show ( did you know that Daniel Striped-Tiger was Fred's alter-ego? ), all of the different episodes, and what an impact Fred had, not just on his television audience but the people he worked with as well. After reading this book, you'll want to binge-watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for a few days because this series truly was special. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

Ouuuuuucccccchhhh!! This wrestler is giving his opponent one heck of a headlock. If you like wrestling scenes, then this is a memorable do remember where it is from, don't you? 

As always, if you are not familiar with the rules to the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game or the prize, click here!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Arabian Adventure ( 1979 )

If you are looking for a fun 1970s adventure film set in Arabia, then here is a title to keep in mind: Arabian Adventure. Director Kevin Connor and producer John Dark, who made such corny classics as The Land That Time Forgot ( 1974 ), At the Earth's Core ( 1976 ), and Warlords of Atlantis ( 1978 ) turned from the Edgar Rice Burrough's themed adventure films to try his hand at an Arabian fantasy....and the result was pretty good. 

Variety dubbed Arabian Adventure "Star Wars with flying carpets" when it was released in November 21, 1979. It doesn't have any humanoids or loyal wookies like Chewbacca, but the film does bear a slight resemblance to George Lucas' space epic in its black and white portrayal of evil and goodness. 

Christopher Lee stars as Alquazar, an evil caliph who rules the Arabian kingdom of Jadur. Like most wicked rulers, he desires to be the most powerful man in all the world. In order to do this, he needs to obtain the Rose of Elil which can only be retrieved by someone who is pure and honest. When the handsome Prince Hasan ( Oliver Tobias ) comes to Jadur to woo Alquazar's stepdaughter Princess Zuleira ( Emma Samms ), Alquazar seizes his opportunity and sends the prince on the journey to capture the rose in his place. He agrees to give him the princess's hand in marriage if his expedition is successful but, in order to guarantee that the rose will be returned to him, Alquazar sends his backstabbing henchman, the bubbling Khasim ( Milo O'Shea ) on the journey with Prince Hasan. Also tagging along is Majeed ( Puneet Sira ), a beggar orphan boy, and his pet monkey. Once they reach Elili, they must battle with a genie, a valley of fire-breathing "dragons", and a swamp filled with groping hands before they can capture the rose. 
The script, written by Brian Hayles ( Warlords of Atlantis ), is a motley blend of Eastern fantasy tales. "These Eastern tales abound with lovely excursions into pure fantasy," John Dark exclaimed in a 1979 interview for Starlog magazine. "It was a very beautiful period and a very beautiful territory. We hope to recreate, in our story, the exciting architecture and costumes, as well as some exciting special effects, like an army of flying carpets. It's an amalgam of a lot of stories, a lot of lore, magic mirrors, wicked spells, benign and evil jinnees and one or two very special ideas of our own."

Kevin Connor assembled a fantastic cast for Arabian Adventure. Christopher Lee is delightful as the evil caliph. As Lee himself described his character, "Very small children can go to see it and they'll have a lot of fun - they won't feel threatened by my evil nature because they'll know I'm going to be done in by the film's end."
Oliver Tobias, a Swiss stage actor, is the handsome prince, rather sullen but a good fighter; and Emma Samms, the lovely English actress, was making her film debut as the princess. But it is Puneet Sira who steals the show as the orphan Majeed. Like Sabu's character in Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad ( 1940 ), it is Majeed who often comes to the aid of the prince and proves himself to be the real hero in the end. 

Arabian Adventure also features some great cameo appearances: Peter Cushing as the imprisoned old ruler of Jadur; Mickey Rooney as a befuddled machinist; and Capucine as a beautiful genie who resides in a gemstone. 

Most of Kevin Connor's films tend to feature a number of warring creatures and a hero who has to spend a lot of time trying to make his escape from these creatures. Arabian Adventure differs in that it has very few creatures, even though the script gave many opportunities to include them. Instead, Prince Hasan and Majeed must contend with Alquazar's sword-wielding Arab henchmen, robotic dragons that guard the volcano where the rose is kept, and an ungrateful genie ( also taken from The Thief of Bagdad ). 

The film is clearly aimed at a younger audience, and while it is entertaining, it could have had more elements that would appeal to adults. The adventure to retrieve the Rose of Elil also could have been more exciting. But all in all, it is a fun Saturday afternoon flick that will probably send a child's imagination wild with fantasies of flying carpets, evil caliphs, genies, and endangered princesses. 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Black Shield of Falworth ( 1954 )

In 1954, Universal-Pictures brought to the screen Howard Pyle's classic story of adventure "Men of Iron" and hailed that it would capture "all the pageantry and excitement of knighthood's epic age". The newly titled The Black Shield of Falworth did not accomplish that task as well as Warner Brothers' The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938 ) or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Ivanhoe ( 1952 ) but it certainly is entertaining.

Young Myles Falworth ( Tony Curtis ) and his sister Meg ( Barbara Rush ) are sent to the castle of the Earl of Mackworth ( Herbert Marshall ), a dear friend of Myles' deceased father whom he never met. Here, Myles learns to become a squire and, later a knight, all the while attempting to learn about his family's crest - the Black Shield of Falworth - and to discover who his father was. 

While at the castle, he falls in love with the Earl's daughter, Lady Anne ( Janet Leigh ) and also becomes embroiled in a conspiracy plot led by the treacherous Earl of Alban ( David Farrar ) to overthrow King Henry IV ( Ian Keith ).

The Black Shield of Falworth is rich in plot, rich in Technicolor, it boasts a fabulous cast and features two great fight sequences, making it an entertaining - if not all that memorable - swashbuckler. 
Universal-Pictures knew they had a star in the making when they signed Bernard Schwartz to a contract in 1948. They taught him riding and fencing and changed his name to Anthony Curtis and then introduced him to audiences in a few budget westerns before awarding him his first feature film The Prince Who Was a Thief ( 1951 ) opposite Piper Laurie. Here was a different kind of swashbuckling hero - an overly-anxious and often hot-headed young man with a very pleasant personality, jet-black hair and a winsome smile.

This Middle Eastern-themed adventure film was followed by the similarly-themed swashbuckler Son of Ali Baba in 1952 and then The Black Shield of Falworth, which was Universal's first picture to be made in Cinemascope. 
Tony Curtis, who was 29-years-old at the time, is great in the part of Myles but the role really should have been given to a younger actor to play. The character of Myles is a mere teenager in the original novel and even in the film is often referred to as "the young lad" or "boy" which doesn't quite sound right since Tony was obviously a man at that time. 

Janet Leigh is lovely as Lady Anne; Torin Thatcher is a glove-fit for the part of Sir James, Myles trainer for knighthood; and Herbert Marshall, who always gives a good performance, is well-suited as the Earl. Unfortunately, David Farrar's talents are wasted, and Barbara Rush is given a merely decorative part. 

Also in the cast is the wonderful Dan O'Herlihy as Prince Hal, a young Patrick O'Neal, Rhys Williams, and Doris Lloyd. 

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Sword in the Stone ( 1963 )

Back in the days shortly after the death of Unther Pendragon, King of England, there appeared in London a magic sword protruding upright from the center of an anvil. It bears an inscription proclaiming that whosoever shall remove the sword from the stone would be crowned the new king of England. 

Young Arthur (aka Wart) is an orphan who was raised in Sir Ector's castle. Sir Ector's son, Sir Kay, desires to venture to London to joust in the countrywide competition shortly before Christmas Day. Arthur aspires to be this knight's squire, but while on a hunting trip in the woods with Sir Kay, he falls into the hut of the wizard, Merlin. This kindly old man can see the future as well as the past and, knowing the young lad is fated to draw the sword from the stone, decides to take Arthur under his wing and "give him an education" prior to his crowning as the illustrious King Arthur. With the help of Archimedes the Owl, Merlin teaches Arthur to believe in himself and to use wits over brawn.

The Sword in the Stone is a delightful animated feature from Walt Disney Studios. It features an 
amnesiac "whiz-bang whizard of whimsy", an engaging young hero and, in place of the usual villain, there is Madam Mim, a rival to Merlin.
The story is based on the Arthurian novels of T.H White's known as "The Once and Future King" series. Walt Disney enjoyed the first book - "The Sword in the Stone" - and purchased the film rights to it the same year it was published: 1938. Unfortunately, the project was not picked up until 1949 when some preliminary storyboards were created. Then there was another long hiatus before story artist Bill Peet re-worked it into this film. 

While this version of The Sword in the Stone is entertaining, it would have benefited greatly from having a stronger villain, some character in the vein of Maleficent ....preferably Morgan le Fay or Vivien, the enchantress who proved to be Merlin's downfall. Madam Mim is an unworthy opponent to both Merlin and Arthur while Sir Ector and his son Sir Kay are more comical than villainous. 
Like 101 Dalmations released two years earlier, The Sword in the Stone implemented Disney's time-saving process of xeroxing the animation cels instead of retracing each cel. Because the Xerox copy machines were only capable of black lines, all of the lines around the figures were inked in black. Some critics feel this technique made the films look inferior to Disney's animated pictures of previous years but, personally, I liked the look. 

Richard and Robert Sherman penned some linguistically clever - albeit forgetful - tunes to The Sword in the Stone, including the delightful "Higitus Figitus", sung by Merlin. 
The Sword in the Stone was released in theaters on Christmas Day in 1963 and proved to be a box-office smash, reaping in nearly $20 million dollars in profit.