Saturday, April 26, 2014

5 Great Shakespeare Films for His 450th Birthday

While William Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally observed on 23 April, we have no real way of knowing the date on which he was actually born. Quite simply no birth certificate nor any other documentation givng the exact date of his birth exists. That having been said, we do know when he was christened, as the parish Register for Stratford records his baptism as taking place on 26 April 1564. While we do not know exactly when William Shakespeare was born, we at least know it was late April from his baptismal record. That means April 2014 is the month of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth. With that in mind, film buffs might want to check out some films based on his classic plays. Here are five of my favourites.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935): MGM's 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be best known for its all star cast, which included Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, Jean Muir, James Cagney, and Mickey Rooney, among others. That having said, there is much more to recommend this adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream than star gazing. The film was directed by legendary stage director Max Reinhardt, who had already directed the play on stage many times (the first being in 1927). Hal Mohr's cinematography is excellent; it is with good reason he won the Academy Award for Cinematography that year. The film also benefits from Ralph Dawson's superb editing (for which it also won an Oscar). While the performances of the cast vary in quality, none of them detract from the overall quality of what is a very good adaptation of the play.

Hamlet (1948): I must confess that I have never liked Oedipal interpretations of Hamlet. I also dislike the fact that Lord Laurence Olivier entirely cut Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern from the film. That having been said, there is much to recommend his 1948 adaptation of Hamlet. Namely, the performances of the film's principals. As Hamlet Lord Olivier gave what could be the best performance of his career (he won the Best Actor Oscar for that year). Jean Simmons is equally impressive as Ophelia (she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress). Writer  J. Lawrence Guntner has said that Lord Olivier's Hamlet drew from both German expressionism and film noir. As a result Lord Olivier's Hamlet looks incredible, suitably dark and moody. Between its look and the performances, the 1948 version of Hamlet is one of the better Shakespeare adaptations out there.

Macbeth (1948): Nineteen forty eight was a very good year for Shakespeare adaptations, as this is also the year that Orson Welles' version of Macbeth was released. Those looking for a faithful adaptation of the play might wish to look elsewhere, as Mr. Welles did alter it substantially, among other things giving the weird sisters a bigger role. That having been said, Orson Welles' Macbeth is surprisingly effective, both moody and spooky in a way that one suspects the Bard must have meant it to be. Oddly enough, the film may actually have been helped by its shoestring budget, which forced Mr. Welles to make up for a lack of money with some inventive direction and cinematography. The end result is that Orson Welles' Macbeth is a dark and even strange film, in some respects as much a horror film as a tragedy. Macbeth also benefits greatly from its performances, with Orson Welles as Macbeth and Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth being particularly impressive. And while there have been those who have complained about it, I think Orson Welles made the right choice in having the performers speak with Scottish burrs. It gives this Macbeth an authenticity that is lacking many other adaptations of the Scottish Play.

Throne of Blood (1957): Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is even less of a straight forward adaptation of Macbeth than Orson Welles' version is, but it is among the very best. Indeed, Mr.Kurosawa transferred the action from medieval Scotland to medieval Japan and infused it with the sensibilities of a jidaigeki film. On paper it does not sound like it would work and yet Akira Kurosawa succeeded far more in adapting Macbeth than many Westerners have. While Throne of Blood is hardly a faithful adaptation of Macbeth, it captures the spirit of the play very well. Indeed, it is both moody and violent in the way an adaptation of Macbeth should be. As might be expected both the direction and the cinematography on Throne of Blood are incredible. It can quite rightly be described as poetry on film.

Henry V (1989): Sir Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is not a loyal adaptation. Indeed, he even includes flashbacks from  Henry IV, Part 1 and  Henry IV, Part 2. That having been said, it could very well be the best adaptation of the play on film as well as one of the very best Shakespeare movie adaptations. Indeed, Sir Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is simultaneously both a more true-to-life and yet more epic presentation of the play than has previously been seen on film. Indeed, the Battle of Agincourt takes place amidst rain and mud with the sort of violence one might expect of medieval combat. At the same time Henry V benefits from some truly memorable performances, not the least of which is Sir Kenneth Branagh as King Henry V himself. In my humble opinion no previous adaptation of the play was as great as Sir Kenneth Branagh's Henry V  and I doubt any future adaptation will be as great either.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Ella Fitzgerald in St. Louis Blues

Today in 1917 Ella Fitzgerald was born. The Queen of Jazz made only a few film appearances in her career, so it is very notable when she showed on the big screen. This is one of her appearances in film, her cameo as herself in St. Louis Blues (1958). The film starred Nat King Cole as blues composer W. C. Handy. It also featured a cast that reads like a Who's Who of American music, including Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, and a very young Billy Preston (who played W. C. Handy as a boy).

Without further ado, here is Ella Fitzgerald's part in the film. She is performing "If Beale Street Could Talk".

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Evil of Victor Frankenstein in Hammer Films

 (Warning: If you have not seen Hammer Films' "Frankenstein" movies  you might want to avoid this article. Quite simply, Here There Be Spoilers)

When many people hear the name "Frankenstein", they are apt to think of the Creature created by the scientist of that name. And when many picture that Creature, he is played by Boris Karloff in makeup and platform boots. When others hear the name "Frankenstein", however, they are apt to think of the scientist himself, Baron Victor Frankenstein. And when they picture that scientist, he is played by Peter Cushing in exquisite, early 19th Century clothing.

It was in 1956 that the British production company Hammer Films decided to make their own movie based on Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The novel had been previously adapted by Universal Pictures in 1931, the success of that film leading to an entire series of movies starring Frankenstein's Creature. Hammer Films' version of the classic novel, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), would prove equally successful. Like Universal's Frankenstein (1931) it would also lead to a series of films. Unlike Universal, however, the star of Hammer's "Frakenstein" films would be the villainous doctor himself.

At the time that he was cast as Victor Frankenstein, Peter Cushing was primarily a star of British television. He had already starred in several BBC productions, including television adaptations of  Pride and Prejudice (in which he played Mr. Darcy) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (in which he played Winston Smith). He had played supporting roles in a few films, including The Black Knight (1954), The End of the Affair (1955), and Alexander the Great (1956). The Curse of Frankenstein gave Peter Cushing, heretofore a leading man on television and a supporting actor in motion pictures, his first leading role in a feature film. There can be little doubt that his performance in The Curse of Frankenstein was largely responsible for its success. Indeed, not only would Hammer make more "Frankenstein" films starring Peter Cushing as the doctor, but Peter Cushing would go onto play Van Helsing in Hammer's "Dracula" movies, Sherlock Holmes, and Captain Clegg among other roles.

Of course, Peter Cushing owed much of his performance in The Curse of Frankenstein to a particularly strong screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. While the script gave Christopher Lee a choice role as the Creature, the centre of attention in The Curse of Frankenstein remains Victor Frankenstein himself. This is in stark contrast to Universal's Frankenstein, in which the Creature (played by Boris Karloff) is the main attraction. While Colin Clive delivered an excellent performance as Henry Frankenstein (Universal having changed the doctor's name from the novel) in both Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, he was largely outshined by Boris Karloff. What is more, Colin Clive's Frankenstein is as nearly as different from Peter Cushing's Frankenstein as night and day. Colin Clive's Frankenstein is a misguided scientist who might play with the laws of nature, but is less willing to break the rules when it comes to conventional morality. In Bride of Frankenstein when Dr. Pretorius proposes building a mate for the Creature, Colin Clive's Frankenstein is reticent to do so. One suspects that Peter Cushing's Frankenstein would not only have eagerly taken Pretorious up on his offer, but he probably would have thought of it himself.

Indeed, while Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein may be considered a hapless anti-hero, Peter Cushing's Victor Frankenstein can be and usually is an outright villain. Quite simply, in Hammer's "Frankenstein" movies Victor Frankenstein is devoted to the pursuit of science at any cost, regardless of if it is illegal or immoral. While Henry Frankenstein in the Universal films was content to get bodies for his experiments through robbing graves or vaults, Victor Frankenstein in the Hammer films is not below getting bodies for his experiments through outright murder. When he needs a brain for his creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, he simply invites Professor Bernstein (played by Paul Hardtmuth) to his home and then promptly shoves him off the top of a staircase.

Despite his devotion to science it would be a mistake to think that Victor Frankenstein cannot appreciate the "better things" in life. Peter Cushing's Frankenstein is an urbane sophisticate with a love of wine, women, and song. Unfortunately, he is as immoral in his pursuit of pleasure as he is his pursuit of science. In The Curse of Frankenstein he has been dallying with his beautiful maid Justine (played by Valerie Gaunt), despite being betrothed to the equally beautiful Elizabeth (Hazel Court). When Justine threatens Frankenstein that she will inform everyone that she is pregnant with his child unless he marries her, he insures she is locked inside the laboratory with the Creature, full well knowing what her fate will be.

This is not to say that in The Curse of Frankenstein Victor Frankenstein does not have his good points. Peter Cushing plays the doctor with such charm and joie de vivre that it is sometimes hard not to root for him, even when he is doing some of the most despicable things. It must also be pointed out that when his fiancée Elizabeth is threatened by the Creature he goes to rescue her, even going so far as to destroy the Creature. It would then seem that Victor Frankenstein is capable of caring for someone other than himself after all.

With the success of The Curse of Frankenstein and the popularity of Peter Cushing in the role of the not-so-good doctor, the expectation would be that he would become an increasingly better person in the successive movies. This was not the case in the Hammer "Frankenstein" films. In fact, with the exception of one film (which I will discuss below) Victor Frankenstein remained as ruthless as ever. In fact, in some ways he would grow even worse than he was in The Curse of Frankenstein. Indeed, when audiences left the evil doctor in The Curse of Frankenstein  he was due to be executed by guillotine. At the start of The Revenge of Frankenstein he escaped by having a priest beheaded in his stead and then buried as "Victor Frankenstein". We later find him in the village of Carlsbruck using the name "Dr. Stein" and up to his old tricks--namely, building a new Creature.

In the fourth film in the series, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the doctor shows as little concern for his fellow man as he ever did. When his assistant Hans (played by Robert Morris) is executed and Hans' girlfriend Christina (played by Susan Denberg) commits suicide, he thinks nothing about reviving Christina's body and transferring Hans' soul into it. If anything Victor Frankenstein is even more ruthless in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Not only is he still committing murder to get body parts for his experiments, but when he learns Dr. Karl Holst (played by Simon Ward) has been stealing narcotics from an asylum pharmacy, he promptly blackmails Dr. Holst and his girlfriend Anna Spengler (played by Veronica Carlson) into helping him in his latest experiment.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also contains one of the most heinous acts committed by the doctor in Hammer's series of "Frankenstein" movies, and it is one that seems out of character for Frankenstein. Quite simply, in one scene he rapes Anna Spengler. Here it must be pointed out that the scene was not in the original script and is never again referenced in the film after it has happened. It must also be pointed out that it was filmed over the objections of Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, and director Terence Fisher. Peter Cushing even apologised to Miss Carlson afterwards! The scene was an afterthought added by Hammer executive James Carreras to please American distributors, who were wanting more sex and violence. At any rate, while Frankenstein is not below committing murder in the name of science, it is inconceivable to think of him forcing himself on a woman. In the previous "Frankenstein' films the doctor only uses violence as either a means to advance science (getting bodies through murder, et. al.) or to preserve his own freedom (sending Justine to her death, et. al.). Since the rape scene is not in the original script and is not referenced in the film afterwards, an argument could be made that it never even happened. It could even have been a bad dream on the part of Anna (who would understandably be frightened by Frankenstein).

Regardless, when Peter Cushing returned as Victor Frankenstein in the last film of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), he is as amoral as ever. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell finds Frankenstein working as the head doctor at an asylum. It seems that Frankenstein blackmailed the asylum director, Adolf Klauss (played by John Stratton), who had been playing fast and loose with the asylum's funds, into giving him the position. Of course, this means that Frankenstein now has a new source for body parts for his latest creature. Quite simply, he murders his patients to get them.

Throughout Hammer's "Frankenstein" series, the doctor commits a number of crimes that would guarantee he would be sent to the guillotine that waited him at the end of The Curse of Frankenstein should he ever be caught. The exception to this is the 1964 film The Evil of Frankenstein, which is so different from the other movies in the series that it seems likely it is not even set in the same reality.  Indeed, in The Evil of Frankenstein Victor seems more like the misguided, but ultimately good Henry Frankenstein played by Colin Clive than the ruthless, determined, and amoral Victor Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein. As if the differences in Frankenstein's character were not enough to prove that this is a different Frankenstein in a different reality, The Evil of Frankenstein provides the doctor and his Creature a backstory that in no way resembles The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein. Although made by Hammer and starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein, it would seem acceptable to consider The Evil of Frankenstein as belonging to an entirely different continuity from the rest of Hammer's "Frankenstein" series.

Of course, there is one other "Frankenstein" film made by Hammer that definitely exists outside the continuity of their "Frankenstein" series, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). By the late Sixties Hammer Films wanted to recapture the youth market that had made them the studio for horror films in the late Fifties and much of the Sixties. It is perhaps for this reason that they decided to replace Christopher Lee, with whom they were having dispute, with the youthful Ralph Bates as Dracula in Taste the Blood of Dracula. Unfortunately for Ralph Bates, when Hammer's American distributor Warner Bros/Seven Arts discovered this, they insisted that Christopher Lee must play Dracula. As a result, Ralph Bates lost the chance to play the legendary vampire. He would get to play a legendary character from Hammer's history, however, when the studio decided to reboot their "Frankenstein" series with a remake of The Curse of Frankenstein entitled The Horror of Frankenstein. Ralph Bates played Victor Frankenstein in the film.

Ultimately The Horror of Frankenstein would fail at the box office and Peter Cushing would return as Victor Frankenstein in the last instalment of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The Horror of Frankenstein suffered from a number of problems, not the least of which was director and writer Jimmy Sangster's decision to incorporate campy humour into the film. That having been said, much of the film's failure may have been the absence of Peter Cushing. As played by Ralph Bates, Frankenstein is still as determined, ruthless, and amoral as ever. And if anything he was even more of a sensualist than Peter Cushing's Frankenstein ever was, having seemingly slept with every girl at his university. Unfortunately, while Peter Cushing as Frankenstein possessed such charisma  that one almost rooted for him even as he was killing people for body parts, Ralph Bates' Frankenstein is so unappealing it is difficult to even understand what the girls at his university saw in him beyond good hair and a handsome face.  While Peter Cushing's Frankenstein was an urbane, charming aesthete, Ralph Bates' Frankenstein seems like a simple boor. In the end The Horror of Frankenstein only proved how necessary Peter Cushing was to the success of the "Frankenstein" films.

Indeed, as played by Peter Cushing, Victor Frankenstein remains one of the most memorable villains not only in horror films, but in films of any genre. Baron Frankenstein was a scientist so devoted to the pursuit of knowledge that he was willing to do almost anything to achieve his aims, including blackmail and murder. That having been said, it would be unfair to describe Frankenstein as a "mad scientist". Obsessed as he is with the pursuit of his craft, Frankenstein is as calm, cold, and calculated as they come. What makes Victor Frankenstein so effective as a villain, however, is not that he is utterly ruthless, determined, calculating, and amoral. Instead it is that he is possessed of an ineffable charm, the sort of charisma that would make even a matinee idol envious. One cannot help but like Baron Victor Frankenstein, even when it is against one's best judgement, as many characters in Hammer's "Frankenstein" series learned much too late.

By the mid-Seventies Hammer Films' brand of Gothic horror movies had largely went out of fashion, overtaken by the demonic horror of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) and slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, released in 1974, would be the last film in Hammer's legendary "Frankenstein" series. While Hammer's brand of Gothic horror went out of style in the Seventies, however, their films remained popular. For many Victor Frankenstein would forever look like Peter Cushing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Craig Hill R.I.P.

Actor Craig Hill died Tuesday, 21 April 2014 at the age of 88. He appeared in such films as The Black Shield of Falworth (1954) and What Price Glory (1952), and starred in the Fifties show Whirlybirds.

Craig Hill was born Craig Fowler in Los Angeles, California on 5 March 1926. He made his film debut in Cheaper by the Dozen in 1950. During the Fifties he appeared in several films, including All About Eve (1950), Detective Story (1951),  What Price Glory (1952), The I Don't Care Girl (1953), The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), Engagement Party (1956), Anything Goes (1956), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and Lafayette Escadrille (1958).  He made his television debut in an episode of My Little Margie. He starred  as P. T. Moore in Whirlybirds, a syndicated show produced by Desilu that centred on a helicopter chartering company. The show ran for three seasons. He also appeared on such shows as Lux Video Theatre, My Friend Flicka, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Death Valley Days, and Bourbon Street Beat.

In the early Sixties he appeared in the films You Have to Run Fast (1961) and Deadly Duo (1962). He appeared in episodes of the TV shows Surfside 6, Hawaiian Eye, Sugarfoot, and The F.B.I. He moved to Spain in 1965 and continued to appear in films made in Europe, including Ocaso de un pistoler (1965), Per il gusto di uccidere (1966), Sette pistole per un massacro (1967), Quindici forche per un assassino (1967), and Assignment Terror (1970).

In the Seventies he appeared in such films as Day of Judgement (1971), Tu fosa será la exacta (1971), Go Away! Trinity Has Arrived in Eldorado (1972), El refugio del miedo (1974), Solamente nero (1978), and Estigma (1980). From the Eighties into the Nineties he appeared in such film as Victòria! La gran aventura d'un poble (1983), Victòria! 2: La disbauxa del 17 (1983), Victòria! 3: El seny i la rauxa (1984), Escapada final (Scapegoat) (1985), La bahía esmeralda (1989), Lolita al desnudo (1991), Historias de la puta mil (1994), and Platillos volantes (2003).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why the New Twitter is a Total #Fail

To be honest I really have not liked the Twitter interface since 2012 when for some inexplicable reason they combined the feeds for retweets and mentions. Since then I think the Twitter interface has only gotten worse. Indeed, to access Twitter I rely upon HootSuite, whose interface actually allows for separate feeds for retweets and mentions. Twitter is currently in the process of rolling out yet another interface. And, sadly, going from the preview, this is the worst one ever.

Indeed, aesthetically I find the new interface, well, ugly. Users no longer have background pictures, but instead a plain off white background. Here I must point out that this plain white background actually makes reading tweets just a little harder, given they are also against an off white background. At the same time one's profile picture and cover picture are now much, much larger (too large if you ask me). I find the over all effect unappealing.

To make matters worse, tweets that have received more reaction than others now appear slightly larger than other tweets so, according to the Twitter blog, "your best content is easy to find". This is actually the thing I hate the most about the new layout. I do not want any of my tweets appearing smaller or larger than the others. I want them all to be the same size. First, I think this makes reading one's tweets harder. Second, from an aesthetic standpoint, it makes for a very unattractive feed. I much prefer tweets to all be the same size. Third, I really don't want any of my tweets emphasised at the expense of others. I like to think all of my content is good, regardless of if it has received engagement or not.

I do have to admit that the new layout has one improvement over the old. They have moved "Who to Follow (*ahem* which should be "Whom to Follow") and Trends to the right sidebar.  The end result is that one doesn't have to scroll as far down to see them now. Of course, I would rather they give us the option of removing "Who to Follow" entirely or at least place Trends above it. I've never used "Who to Follow", but I am interested in what is trending.

There are some features of the new layout that I really couldn't test in the preview. Supposedly in the new layout one can pin one of his or her tweets to the top of his or her page. Honestly, this doesn't sound that useful to me, but some people might like it. Another feature is that one can now filter others' timelines on their profiles by "Tweets", "Tweets with photos/videos", or "Tweets and replies". Again, I really don't see this as necessarily being that useful, although others might like it. Honestly, I would be happy if they would give us the ability to keep pictures and videos from displaying in the feed!

Over all I think the new Twitter layout is a big step in the wrong direction. The only way I could see myself enjoying using it is if they give us the following options: 1.) give us back background pictures; 2.) give us the option of making the profile picture and cover picture smaller; and, most importantly, 3.) give us the option of having all of our tweets the same size, regardless of how much engagement they have had.  I would also appreciate it if they separated retweets from mentions as well as a means to hide photos and videos in the stream. Unless they make those changes I think I will continue using HootSuite for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter 2014

Today is Easter. And whether you regard it as a Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, a festival honouring the spring and dawn goddess Eostre, or simply a fun day to eat lots of chocolate eggs and Peeps, I'm wishing you a happy one. And if you don't celebrate Easter, I'll just wish you a happy Sunday! As usual with major holidays, I thought I'd treat everyone to holiday themed pictures of beautiful actresses from the Golden Age of Film.

First up is Mary Carlisle who is playing the Easter bunny!
Next up is the lovely Debbie Reynolds.
Here the lovely Heather Angel is in someone's Easter basket.

The lovely Dorothy Jordan playing Easter bunny.
Wendy Barrie has found a bunny with a rather large egg.
And lastly, the lovely Ann Miller with a friend.

Happy Easter!!!!!