"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tony Curtis as The Boston Strangler -- His Greatest Performance

I am writing  this short post to announce the showing of what is to me the best dramatic performance of the career of Tony Curtis.  The recent death of Curtis is a loss that affected many classic movie lovers.  He was known for good looks and charm, as a wonderful comedian, and a good dramatic actor.  His best dramatic role, in my opinion, was his portrayal of Albert DiSalvo in the true story of The Boston Strangler.  Henry Fonda also gives a wonderful performance as a detective obsessed with finding the strangler.  The movie was released in 1968, not long after the murders of this vicious killer terrorized the women of Boston.  For reasons unknown to me it is not often shown as part of classic film repertoire.

Fox Movie Channel is showing The Boston Strangler on November 6th at 4:00 p.m. Indianapolis time.   For any fan of Tony Curtis, it is an essential piece of his legacy as an actor.  Watch it, tape it, DVR it, but don't miss it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How To Scare Your Grandchildren With Classic Movies

Some Grandmas bake cookies and pot roasts for the grandkids.  Some knit sweaters and scarves.  I like to scare my grandchildren.  It's not as bad as it sounds...I do it with classic movies.  It's almost Halloween, so it's respectable.  Tonight the kids are spending the night with Grandma, and it was scary movie night.  (I'm a very young grandmother -- really, I was 11 when I had my son, and he was 11 when he had his -- not buying it, huh?)

Tony is 14.  Sometimes I have each grandchild alone, and I have brought out the big guns for him, like The Haunting (the good one, the original) and The Changeling with George C. Scott.  Pretty scary stuff.  He loves them as much as I.  But tonight both the kids are over.  Eileen is 10, and she is more easily scared.  So I brought out good old Vincent Price.  Couldn't be too bad, could it?  The kids snuggled into the beds we made on the living room rug, I got comfortable in my big chair, and we all settled back with snacks.

We started with Vincent in The Pit and the Pendulum.  I told them about the great Edgar Allan Poe and his wonderful body of work.  Educational material, you see.  Fifteen minutes into the movie, I had Eileen on my lap hiding her face and peeking through her fingers, needing Grandma's arm around her when she was unable to stop herself from looking.  Let's see....harpsichord playing by itself, ghostly voice behind the walls, an old torture chamber, a creepy crypt in the cellar, a giant razor-sharp pendulum whooshing down toward a guy's stomach....I don't know why she got scared.  I said maybe we should watch something else.  "No," she declared.  "I like this one."  But she stayed on my lap.  Tony was loving it.

We took a bathroom break, and I put on The House of Wax, Vincent again of course.  I told them about the original 1930's version with Lionel Atwill, the popularity of wax museums long ago.  More education.  10 minutes into this one, Eileen was back on my lap. Hmmm.....wax figures melting in a fire, faces dissolving, eyes popping out, bodies being stolen from the morgue, a creepy wax museum with tableaus of famous murders, Vincent trying to coat the heroine in boiling wax.....  Again I said maybe we should watch something else  Tony protested strongly.  Eileen said "No, I want to see what happens."  On my lap, of course.

So I decided that our third and last feature would be one that couldn't possibly scare anybody, could it?  It's so bad!  Night of the Lepus, certainly not a classic except among cult lovers of really bad movies.  No opportunity for education here.  OK....cute little bunnies made to look huge by camera angles and slow-motion, shadows of the bunnies on a cave wall, bunnies with giant sharp teeth, screaming people....fortunately Eileen fell sound asleep before the screaming and blood, and Tony and I had a good laugh together with this one.

Many people today think children should not see scary movies.  I know a couple of people who think that the fabulous "Night on Bald Mountain" scene in Fantasia is awful, and would never let their kids see it.  I don't agree with them.  When I was a kid at a re-release of Fantasia, the theatre was full of kids and parents, and we loved it.  We're not talking toddlers here -- certainly very small tots would be too scared by this, I think.  Many parents of older children probably don't realize that their kids have spent the night at friends' houses and watched Saw I, Saw II, Saw XXV, or seen the ghastly creative deaths in Final Destination movies.  With classic scary films, parents have a chance to at least educate their children about the difference between good scary and bad grossness.

I like to show my grandkids the good stuff, experience it with them, and show them the quality scary as opposed to some of the sicko gore shown today.  Some of my most treasured memories involve all 7 of us kids going to the movies with Dad and Mom and being scared together.  My Dad would usually do something to scare us after we got home and went to bed, just to make sure we would remember the experience.  We did, and it was great.

Tonight we had a wonderful time, and I feel good that my grandkids know who Vincent Price is, want to see more Poe stories, and enjoy scary movie night with Grandma.  I'll make cookies tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Leo Genn -- A Movie Staple

I watched John Huston’s marvelous movie Moby Dick (1956) today, and feel that a tribute to actor Leo Genn is in order. Genn played first mate Starbuck, about whom the narrator Ishmael said “He was one of the great staples of the ship, like beef or flour, there when needed and not to be foolishly wasted.”

This description of this character applies in a special way to Leo Genn as an actor. He was indeed a great staple of the movies in which he appeared. Genn’s career included many movies and TV appearances in later years, but his real place in movie history comes from three important movies – The Snake Pit (1948), Quo Vadis (1941), and Moby Dick (1956). His dignified good looks, presence, and mesmerizing voice with British accent were a large part of his success on stage and screen. Born in England in 1905, Genn first attended law school and became a barrister. Fortunately for us, he turned to the stage and eventually movies as an actor.

The Snake Pit features Genn as a psychiatrist who treats patient Olivia deHavilland in a mental institution. Lauded for its portrayal of mental illness, The Snake Pit was a movie that has taken its place as one of the important classic films. Genn plays Dr. Kik, dubbed so because his full name is too long for anyone to pronounce. As deHavilland’s doctor, he is kind, probing and determined to be allowed enough time to get to the root of the patient’s problem, a difficult goal in the crowded, under-funded hospital. As many patients do, deHavilland has feelings of love for her doctor during treatment, and indeed, who wouldn’t? Genn is the calming hand of care and reasoning in the midst of madness, and plays his part to perfection.

In his next major movie, Genn plays Petronius in Quo Vadis, a major epic of Rome and the mad emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). His character, the unwilling but interested courtier of Nero, looks upon the corruption of tyranny with a cool, removed sense of irony. In contrast to Robert Taylor’s testosterone-loaded hero, Genn is the symbol of intelligence and prophecy about the future of Rome. His humor is biting, and goes right over the head of the arrogant Nero who believes that Petronius is his admiring follower. Genn’s final scene, in which he writes a note to Nero expressing his true feelings about the tyrant, is unforgettable, as is Nero’s reaction to the note. In a movie which I believe to be somewhat pompous and flawed, Genn stands out in his part.

The third major movie in which Genn plays a central character is Moby Dick. Huston’s extraordinary screenplay, in which he collaborated with writer Ray Bradbury, brings to full life the character of Starbuck. In contrast to the obsessed, unswerving desire for revenge of Ahab (Gregory Peck), Starbuck tries without success to bring his mad Captain back to reality and clarity of thought. In his loyalty and habit of obedience to his Captain, Starbuck reflects upon his dilemma – “Oh I see plainly my miserable office, to obey rebelling.” Starbuck is a beloved character, and his fate difficult to accept.

In all three of these movies, Genn plays the character who is the conscience of the stories. His physical presence and the soothing tone of his voice made him a natural for this type of role. Even in a later role in a TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Jack Palance in the title role, Genn plays Dr. Lanyon, the friend and conscience of the tortured doctor. This was the character type he played so flawlessly.

Leo Genn deserves to be remembered as a significant element in movies that continue to be watched and admired so many years after their initial release. His movies, particularly the three discussed above, would not have been as good as they were without him.