Song at Midnight (1937)

Song at Midnight (“Ye ban ge sheng”)song at midnight poster
Directed by Weibang Ma-Xu
Written by Weibang Ma-Xu based on the play “The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux
1937/China
Xinhua

First viewing
#115 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

“If I am the phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.” ― Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

After it got going, this early Chinese romance/operetta/propaganda/horror film kept me interested, even though it’s not something I will watch again.

(Note:  I cannot find or remember the exact character names) The opera “ghost” assists a young tenor to improve his singing.  After the man makes a hit, he goes to thank the cloaked figure, who proceeds to relate his sad history.  Let us call the “ghost” Song.  After fighting bravely for the Kuomintang, Song went to sing at the opera where he fell in love with one of the other performers.  Theirs was an eternal passion on an operatic scale. The dastardly “Tang” also lusted after the young woman and told her father that Song was a dirty revolutionary and low-life actor.  The father rounded up Song and had him beaten to within an inch of his life.  After the woman refuses to have anything to do with Tang, he decides Song won’t have her either and throws acid in his face.  Horrified when he saw his face in the mirror, Song made his friends tell his beloved that he was dead.  The woman went crazy from grief.  Song tried to comfort her by singing when the moon was full.

After Song is finished telling the story, he tells the young tenor he should now comfort the woman.  The tenor goes to her and for some reason she convinces herself that he is Song.  However, unbeknownst to Song, the tenor also has an epic love.  Tang, now the owner of the opera, tries to seduce the tenor’s lover and is rebuffed.  Tang tries to strangle the woman but the tenor walks in and the men start brawling.  As Tang prepares to stab the tenor, Song appears and after a battle kills Tang.  The townspeople see Song’s horrible face and chase him through the town with torches until they corner him in a tower which they set on fire (shadows of Frankenstein).  The tenor goes to Song’s beloved and tells her not to grieve.  Song would have wanted them to fight on for freedom and liberty in the Kuomintang.  The two of them stand looking toward the rising sun as the film ends.

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It was a little hard to wrap my head around the Phantom being the most noble and heroic character in the film!  This movie truly has a little bit of everything.  Western classical music is used in combination with the Chinese opera music and the men largely wear business suits while the ladies are in traditional attire.  The acting is very, very histrionic and flamboyant, as I imagine it might be in traditional theater.  It all took some getting used to and was not assisted by the dark and grainy print.  I can’t say I’d watch again for pleasure but I’m glad I saw it.

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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s BabyRosemary's Baby Poster
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roman Polanski based on the novel by Ira Levin
1968/USA
William Castle Productions

Repeat viewing
#500 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.0/10; I say 9.0/10

Mrs. Gilmore: We’re your friends, Rosemary. There’s nothing to be scared about. Honest and truly there isn’t!

There’s nothing creepier than gynecological horror unless it’s gynecological horror with old people.

I’ll make this short. to keep the story fresh for those who have not seen this classic film.  Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is married to up-and-coming actor Guy (John Casavettes) and the two are ready to start a family.  They move into the historic Bamford Building, with its gothic layout and history of murders and weird occult activities.  Soon, the two are befriended by their elderly next-door neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon).    Minnie is nosy and bossy but Guy takes a liking to Roman and starts spending quality time with him.  Suddenly, the couple are in charge of Rosemary’s pregnancy, which rapidly develops alarming “complications” …  With Ralph Bellamy and Charles Grodin as obstetricians, Elisha Cook Jr. as a real estate agent, Maurice Evans as Rosemary’s friend, and Patsy Kelly as a friend of the Castevets.

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My husband calls this “idiotic” but I think it is practically perfect.  Roman Polanski did an awesome job of creating a realistically eerie atmosphere in his first Hollywood film. Likewise Mia Farrow turned in what may be her best performance ever in her screen debut.  It seems like Polanski had his choice of all the great classic character actors to fill out his cast and they make the movie even more fun.

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Netflix sent me the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray.  The film looked beautiful but sometimes high-resolution reveals a little too much as when it highlighted the make-up used to get Farrow’s warmed-over-death look.  It contains a 2012 documentary with Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow, and studio head Robert Evans talking about the making of the film, a radio interview with novelist Ira Levin, and a full-length documentary about Krzysztof Komeda, who wrote the haunting score.

Ruth Gordon won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her work in Rosemary’s Baby and Roman Polanski was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

Theatrical Trailer

Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937)

Return of the Scarlet Pimpernelreturn of the scarlet pimpernel poster
Directed by Hanns Schwarz
Written by Lajos Biró, Adrian Brunel, and Arthur Wimperis from a novel by  Baroness Emmuska Orczy
1937/UK
London Film Productions

First viewing

Chauvelin: [Defining the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’] A demmed intrusive weed

This has a low IMDb user rating of 5.3/10, so I didn’t expect much going in.  I must say I thought it was perfectly fine!

Sir Percy Blakeney’s (Barry K. Barnes) cover has been blown and the French know he is the notorious Scarlet Pimpernel, savior of condemned aristocrats during the Reign of Terror. Robespierre orders the Pimpernel’s arch-foe Chauvelin to capture him or else. Chauvelin uses the Spanish lover of Jean Tallien (James Mason) to bait his trap. Marguerite Blakeney’s misplaced sympathy for the woman is used to lure her into a situation where she can be spirited to France.  Once this happens, the Scarlet Pimpernel must leap into action, employing all the many disguises at his disposal.

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If one does not expect the film to reach the levels attained by the 1934 original with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey, it turns out to be an entertaining movie, if not much more than that.

Hit the Saddle (1937)

Hit the Saddle Hit the Saddle Poster
Directed by Mack V. Wright
Written by Oliver Drake based on a story by William Colt MacDonald
1937/USA
Republic Pictures

First viewing

 

Lullaby Joslin: I know just how Stoney feels about it. Why, my third wife used to raise a ruckus every time I left her. Too bad about her, though. Took her out riding one day. She fell off her horse, broke her leg… we had to shoot her.

This Republic programmer is notable chiefly for containing an early performance by Rita Hayworth, still known at that time as Rita Cansino.

The Three Mesquiteers, Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston),Tuscon Smith, and Lullaby Johnson, are fast friends working on the same ranch.  Stony has fallen in love with raven-haired saloon-hall dancer Rita (Hayworth) and she has marriage on her mind.  Naturally, his two buddies will do anything to stop this.

On a separate track, evil rancher Rance McGowan rounds up protected wild horses and sells them.  When his henchmen are caught, he develops an ingenious plan to get the protection lifted.  He disguises his trained killer horse (!) to resemble a wild stallion and then looses the animal on nearby ranchers.  When the horse kills the sheriff, the ranchers demand that it be killed and the protection be lifted.  Stony swears that the wild stallion is no killer and demands a fair trial.

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This is an early entry in Republic’s “Three Mesquiteers” series, which ran around 50 films from 1936 to 1943.  It has all the classic elements of a series oater including a juvenile sidekick for the boys to identify with, a doomed and kissless romance, and a comic relief stock hero.  In this case, it is Max Terhune’s Lullaby Joslin with his ventriloquist routines and hog impressions (seriously).  That all said, I found it a rather relaxing hour of entertainment.

Clip – opening

Something to Sing About (1937)

Something to Sing Aboutsomething to sing about poster
Directed by Victor Schertzinger
Written by Victor Schertzinger and Austin Parker
1937/USA
Zion Meyers Productions

First viewing

Terrence ‘Terry’; Rooney: I’ll stand up here and let you stick pins in me, but one more tickle, and I’m going to tear off one of your legs and wrap it around your neck for a scarf.

It’s always fun to watch James Cagney dance, and that’s the highpoint of this otherwise unremarkable musical flop.

Terry Rooney (Cagney) is a Manhattan band-leader/hoofer who has gotten the call from Hollywood to make a picture.  He bids farewell to Rita (Evelyn Daw), the band’s vocalist, to a swing version of Wagner’s Wedding March.  Terry has the usual trials and tribulations in adjusting to Tinsel Town and then gets nothing but discouragement on his work from the producers who secretly think he’s terrific but want to keep his price low.

After Terry finishes the picture, he marries Rita under his real name and they go on a long honeymoon on a tramp steamer to the South Seas.  When Terry returns, the picture has made him a star.  The studio doesn’t want a married star so the couple reluctantly agree to keep the marriage secret.  This leads to a number of misunderstandings and quarrels, of course.  With William Frawley as the studio’s overzealous press agent.

Something to Sing About 1

Cagney can do very little wrong in my book and he’s even better when he is dancing.  He’s sensational in a couple of the musical sequences.  Unfortunately, most of the musical sequences feature the singing of Evelyn Daw and her trained operatic soprano voice — not a good match for the swing band she accompanies.

James Cagney made Something to Sing About for Grand National Pictures during one of his many contract disputes with Warner Bros.  Grand National had been better known for its B pictures previously.  This big-budget box-office fiasco caused the studio’s eventual demise in 1940.  According to IMDb, Grand National Pictures head Edward L. Alperson had previously paid $25,000 for the rights to the perfect James Cagney vehicle, Angels with Dirty Faces, and was literally begged by staff producer Edward Finney to film that property first but inexplicably went forward with this instead.  Angels with Dirty Faces, of course, was released by Warners in 1938 with Cagney to great acclaim.

Something to Sing About was Oscar-nominated for its score by versatile writer/director Victor Schertzinger.

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Café Metropole (1937)

Café MetropoleCafe Metropole
Directed by Edward H. Griffith
Written by Jacques Deval from an original story by Gregory Ratoff
1937/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

First viewing

 

Monsieur Victor Lobard: That’s the trouble with a flawless plan! There’s always a flaw in it!

Russian raconteur Monsieur Victor (Adolphe Menjou) owns a nightclub in Paris and is deeply in debt.  He gambles the last francs he can get his hands on at baccarat and wins big.  Unfortunately, the loser is American Alexander Brown (Tyrone Power) who writes a bad check before declaring himself penniless.  Victor blackmails Alexander into masquerading as a Russian prince and wooing American heiress Laura Ridgeway (Loretta Young).  Despite Alexis’s terrible Russian accent, Laura is immediately smitten. With Charles Winniger as Laura’s father, Helen Westley as her aunt, and Gregory Ratoff as a waiter.

Cafe Metropole 1

I enjoyed this comedy, chiefly for its script and the performances by Menjou and various character actors.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in a scene deleted from the film (lost for 60 years)

A Damsel in Distress (1937)

A Damsel in DistressDamsel in Distress Poster
Directed by George Stevens
Written by P.G. Wodehouse, Ernest Pagano and S.K. Lauren from a story by P.G. Wodehouse
1937/USA
RKO Radio Pictures

First viewing

 

A foggy day in London Town/ Had me low and had me down/ I viewed the morning with alarm/ The British Museum had lost its charm/ How long, I wondered, could this thing last?/ But the age of miracles hadn’t passed,/ For, suddenly, I saw you there/ And through foggy London Town/ The sun was shining everywhere. “A Foggy Day”, lyrics by Ira Gershwin

This was the first film Fred Astaire made without Ginger Rogers since they were first paired in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio.  Joan Fontaine is certainly no Ginger but Burns and Allen make surprisingly good dancing partners for Fred.

Everyone expects Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Fontaine) to marry soon and the servants have laid bets on who the lucky man will be.  The prime contenders are the Bertie-Woosterish twit her aunt favors or the American she is in love with.

Jerry Halliday (Astaire) is an American dancer in London.  His press agent (George Burns) has a media campaign that has made him quite the matinée idol and he is chased everywhere by the ladies.  One day, as he is escaping, Alyce takes refuge in his cab to escape the family butler who is tailing her.

A series of misunderstandings causes a number of people to believe Jerry is the American Alyce is in love with and to either try to bring them together or separate them.  Needless to say, they fall in love.  With Constance Collier as the snooty aunt.

Damsell in Distress 1

I don’t rank this with the Astaire-Rogers films but it has many pleasures.  The score is by George and Ira Gershwin and includes the standards “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

Burns and Allen are quite funny of course.  The amazing thing was watching them match Astaire step for step in the tap dancing department!  Poor Joan Fontaine looks lovely but struggled to do a basic ballroom dance with Astaire.  She later joked that this movie set her career back four years.

 

Hermes Pan won an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction for the “Fun House” sequence featuring Astaire, Burns and Allen.  A Damsel in Distress was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction.

Clip – Astaire taps with Burns and Allen in “Just Begun to Live”

 

Elephant Boy (1937)

Elephant Boyelephant boy poster
Directed by Zoltan Korda and Robert J. Flaherty
Written by John Collier, Akos Tolnay, and Marcia De Silva from “Toomai of the Elephants” by Rudyard Kipling
1937/UK
London Film Productions

First viewing

 

The torn boughs trailing o’er the tusks aslant,/ The saplings reeling in the path he trod,/ Declare his might — our lord the Elephant,/ Chief of the ways of God. — Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant”

Sabu shines in his debut as an elephant minder.

Toomai’s (Sabu) father owns a huge and magnificent elephant which Toomai lovingly tends to and plays with.  There is a call from the local Great White Hunter for elephants to work on a hunting expedition.  Toomai’s father applies and the hunter is charmed by Toomai, who is crazy for hunting, and he joins the hunting party.  The other local workers tease Toomai and say he will only become a hunter when he sees the elephant dance. The mission of this particular outing is to round up wild elephants for domestication. However, there is not an elephant to be had.  How will Toomai save the day?

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Sabu, especially after seeing a documentary of his life, and he is already a charmer here.  The film has many lovely documentary-like moments showing elephant behavior and “exotic” human activity as might be expected from Flaherty’s involvement.  Worth a watch.

Clip – intro

 

Fire Over England (1937)

Fire Over EnglandFire Over England Poster
Directed by William K. Howard
Written by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason
1937/UK
London Film Productions

First viewing

 

Vivien Leigh remembers: “I was making Fire Over England then, and Larry was in it too. Flora Robson was playing Queen Elizabeth. It was in that film that Larry and I met, too. I wonder whether-if the film was shown again-you would see it in our faces, the confrontation with our destiny. I don’t think I have ever lived quite as intensely ever since. I don’t remember sleeping, ever; only every precious moment that we spent together.”

Flora Robson just might be my favorite Elizabeth I ever.  She, and a chance to see Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh at the height of their physical beauty, made this a fairly enjoyable experience.

It is 1588 and relations between Spain and England are at the breaking point.  English pirates regularly plunder Spanish treasure ships and Spain is said to be building an armada for an attack on the island.  The Spanish capture English pirate Sir Richard Ingolby who is sailing with his son Michael (Laurence Olivier).  Michael manages to escape and takes refuge with a Spanish nobleman and his daughter but the father is hauled away and burned by the Inquisition.

Michael is left with a burning hatred for the Spanish.  Despite the protests of his lady love (Vivien Leigh), when he returns to England he takes on a dangerous spy mission to Spain to uncover the names of the traitors that are plotting to assassinate the Queen.  With Raymond Massey as Philip II of Spain,  Leslie Banks as a loyal English courtier, and an almost unrecognizable James Mason in one of his very first roles as a traitor.

Fire Over England

This average costume drama comes alive every time Flora Robson is on screen.  Fortunately, this is fairly frequently.  I loved the scene when Elizabeth takes her wig off and looks at her aging face in a mirror.  Otherwise, things proceed just about how one would expect.

Trailer

Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937)

Broadway Melody of 1938broadway-melody-of-1938-poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Written by Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers
1938/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing

 

Betty Clayton: [singing] I don’t care what happens, let the whole world stop. As far as I’m concerned you’ll always be the top. ‘Cause you know you made me love you.

This MGM musical extravaganza is worth seeing just for Judy Garland’s numbers.  The performances by Eleanor Powell, Buddy Ebsen, and Sophie Tucker are gravy.

This has a pretty convoluted plot, though the plot is not what you watch for. Producer/songwriter Steve Raleigh (Robert Taylor) has financial backing from millionaire Herman Whipple to put on a show.  Whipple’s wife (Binnie Barnes) has agreed to the loan because she not-so-secretly has the hots for young Steve.  The trio go up to Saratoga to see the Whipple’s horse Stargazer race.  Stargazer comes up lame in the race and loses.

Stargazer’s ex-owner Sally Lee has been hanging around the stables.  She bums a ride in Stargazer’s boxcar on the train home.  There she is befriended by Sonny (George Murphy) and Pete (Buddy Ebsen) who have landed jobs tending the horse.  Sally tells them she plans to try to get work on Broadway when she arrives in New York and she demonstrates her dance moves.  Naturally, Steve walks in on this and knows he has found his leading lady.  It is also love at first sight.

To make a long story short, Sally reacquires Starbuck.  Mrs. Whipple gives an ultimatum that Steve has to choose between Sally and her husband’s money.  Can Starbuck win the race so that the show can go on?

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The picture is worth a thousand words.  This little girl had the pipes of a star from day one.  Eleanor Powell and Buddy Ebsen are fantastic dancers and have ample opportunity to show their stuff.  I was really looking forward to seeing Sophie Tucker perform for the first time, but she is getting on and has been given the MGM treatment so I was a bit disappointed.  There were certainly none of the salty asides she is best known for.

The songs, other than “You Made Me Love You” and Tucker’s short demo of “Some of These Days” are nothing to write home about and the story is silly but I’m glad I saw it.

Clip – Judy Garland singing “Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You”  (ah, chills …)

Bonus:  Sophie Tucker singing “Some of These Days” – 1911