Thursday, 12 July 2018

Classic movies: Shanghai Express, The Shop Around the Corner, Algiers, Seven Brides..., Anna and the King of Siam, etcetera (x3)

Shanghai Express (1932) was director Joseph von Sternberg's fourth collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, who slinks, slithers and oozes across the screen...

...with languorous sexuality, exuding pheromones, while pausing frequently to pose for a series of Vogue-style fashion stills in which hyper-dramatic chiaroscuro lighting turns her face into an icon to be worshipped by musical gentlemen for all eternity. Personally, I prefer her as the chunky-thighed, chubby-cheeked tart of Der Blaue Engel, but there's no doubting the (literal) brilliance of Von Sternberg and his cameramen's work here. As the film is pre-code, we're left in no doubt that Ms Dietrich - and her accidental travelling companion, Anna Mae-Wong - are whores: "It took more zen vun men to change my name to Shenghai Leelly!" Here, "Doc" and Lilly get reacquainted:

Lilly's lost love, the English actor Clive Brook as a British officer, also happens to be the train. He thinks Lilly abandoned him years ago, so he sulks around, looking like a man suffering from severe dyspepsia and raging haemorrhoids who has just discovered that his valet forgot to pack any Gaviscon or Anusol. Warner Oland (who would later morph into Charlie Chan) is very good as a priapic. mixed-race spy/military commander for the rebel forces. Not one single second of this febrile hokum is remotely believable, but it's enormously, rip-roaringly entertaining. No wonder it was the most successful film of the year at the box office.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) whose basic plot-line - two people who can't stand each other unwittingly fall in love as penfriends - was used in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan 1998 romcom, You've Got Mail. In the original, which was adapted from a 1937 Hungarian play, the lovers/haters are played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers in a leather goods shop owned by Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz himself). Berlin-born director Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be), kept Budapest as the setting, and, despite three undeniably American stars, it retains a charmingly Mitteleuropean atmosphere. Jimmy Stewart is perfect (as he so often was), as is Frank Morgan, and, while Margaret Sullavan (who often played opposite Stewart, and would return permanently to the stage shortly after this film) is fine, I couldn't help thinking how much funnier and more convincing Jean Arthur would have been in the role. Still, it's an absolute delight. Here's the original trailer:

Algiers (1938) doesn't quite measure up to its glorious French original, Pépé le Moko (1937) - Charles Boyer can match Jean Gabin's charm, but not the sense of violent menace the part requires, and the film tends to lay on the exoticism with a trowel. Then again, Boyer is terrific, and the lovely Hedy Lamarr (the classy siren who unknowingly lures the crook to his doom), Sigrid Urie (his vengeful wildcat of an Algerian girlfriend - played, oddly, by a Norwegian-American actress - her surname was Haugelid), and the wily, patient local police detective, played by Joseph Calleia, are all good. The fetid, labyrinthine Casbah is beautifully shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe. Boyer never utters the invitation, "Come with me to the Casbah", but he really should have (when the legend becomes fact, print the legend). Boyer had the most extraordinarily deep speaking voice - a true bass: I'm a baritone, and I can do a passable bass voice, but I couldn't quite lower myself to Boyer's pitch here. Here's a trailer:


The thing that surprised me about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is that it was created for the screen: I'd always assumed it had originally been a stage musical. As with a surprising number of '50s musicals, the underlying moral assumptions are somewhat disquieting - I mean, seven strapping mountain men kidnap seven prospective brides from the local town and hold them captive over the winter? - but it all sort of works, and ends up achieving charm. The Gene-Kelly-on-steroids acrobatic dancing is impressively, exuberantly muscular - especially if you like watching chaps whose muscles have muscles skilfully brandishing their choppers; the technicolour cinematography is vibrantly lush (it's meant to be Oregon Territory); the songs are fine; colour-coding the redheaded brothers' clothes to help us tell them apart is clever; and Jane Powell and Howard Keel are outstanding (in fact, Howard Keel, a graduate of the Wooden Indian School of Acting, is impressively animated throughout). Here, the lads cavort lustily:

Anna and the King of Siam (1946), which was later turned into the musical, The King and I, is well worth catching: for a start, there's Lee J. Cobb's remarkably restrained turn as a Siamese court advisor with a truly startling pompadour! Rex Harrison as the King trying to modernise his country is, by modern standards, wrong on many levels - but he's memorable and funny, and Irene Dunne is excellent, as are Gale Sondergaard as head wife and the sultry Linda Darnell as the King's favourite wife, who is initially antagonistic towards Anna. The kids are cute - but not as ickily so as in the musical version - and the depiction of the fate of the Favourite Wife and her priest lover, and the King's cruel reaction to their treachery, is genuinely chilling. Close the curtains, forget it's 2018, and just wallow. Here's a great trailer:

I'd been meaning to watch The Phantom of the Opera (1925) ever since my teenage years as an avid reader of the magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Unfortunately, it's not that good. The sets are stupendous, and Lon Chaney's make-up - especially in the famous scene where he's unmasked for the first time while fiddling with his organ, and the one where he appears, masked, at a grand opera house reception - is still chillingly effective. But the story's bloody silly, most of the acting is OTT, even by silent film standards, and, after the first half hour or so, I found myself checking every few minutes to find out how much more of it there was to endure. Still, it made a whopping $2m on its release, another $1m when a soundified version was unleashed in 1930, and it undoubtedly paved the way for the great Universal horror classics of the early '30s. Here's a remastered edition of the whole film:

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