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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Someday Man and a Maybe Child

I can't let the day end without sharing a few more thoughts on Davy Jones. I'm among those who first discovered the Monkees in the mid-80s when MTV started rerunning their television series around the clock, and somewhere in there I got addicted. I've been revisiting the show lately and I find it still holds up. As actors they had shades of the old comedy greats like the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello about them. As musicians and singers, well they actually were more influential and talented than a lot of people give them credit for, and if anything, their songs always make me happy, but this isn't really about debating the merits of the Monkees, it's about saying goodbye to one of them.
I only ever saw them (well, three fourths of them) live once, during their 2001 tour, but Davy... I saw him perform almost once a year for nearly a decade. Living close to Walt Disney World has its benefits and for a good while one of them was the opportunity to go see Davy Jones perform live every spring at Epcot. And it wasn't just watching him perform, it was seeing his multi-generational fan base. The crowd was always made up of fans (mostly women) who first saw him in the 6os, their children, and grandchildren. (I wouldn't be surprised if there was a great-grandchild or two) Then there were the ones who discovered the Monkees in the 70s on Saturday mornings or in the 80s on MTV and their offspring. And Davy sure could work a crowd, and he wasn't afraid to get down in the stands with them. I met Micky Dolenz once, but I never got to speak with Davy personally, but he struck me as kind and generous with regard to his fans. I remember one incident in particular, and I think this was at the very first concert I saw him in at Epcot. A man approached the stage and passed him a note, at first he seemed distracted, and I though he may have been thrown off his game, but the note turned about to be from someone who had once seen Davy as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, and soon we were treated to a medley of Oliver! songs that had not been part of the planned set. I thought that was rather gracious of him. A week ago, I was already mentioning plans to see Davy again this spring, but sadly this tradition has come to an end. This was part of a series of concerts in an open air auditorium every spring in the park. I doubt I'll be able to walk past any of the other acts without a tear coming to my eye. I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to see him perform so many times.

Opinions will always be divided as far as the Monkees are concerned, but to me they belong right up there with many of the other big groups of the 60s: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who... And until today, they were the last of my favorite long term bands whose roster was all still with us. I'm gonna miss you, Davy. To paraphrase a song by your bandmate, Mike: We won't be the same without you.

I'm sure most people are playing "Daydream Believer" today. Great song, I don't blame 'em, but I think this one's my favorite of his.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Study in Classic Horror- THE BLACK CAT (1934)

It’s amazing that a film can be so enjoyable, yet so incoherent. Plot-wise, it’s all over the place, but it’s saved by the sublime acting of Boris Karloff and the imposing presence of Bela Lugosi.

I’ll see if I can get it all straight. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who has just been released from a World War I prison camp, and is on his way to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), whose actions during the war resulted in the deaths of many men as well as Werdegast’s imprisonment. The purpose of Werdegast’s visit is revenge, and to learn the fate of the wife and daughter he left behind. During his journey, Dr. Werdegast encounters a pair of honeymooning Americans played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells. The three end up on an ill-fated bus trip that results in them all staying in Poelzig’s imposing mansion, so that the young bride can recover from injuries sustained when the bus crashed. Werdegast learns that his wife has died (possibly murdered by Poelzig) and that his daughter has subsequently become Poelzig’s bride. Oh, and apparently Poelzig is also the leader of a satanic cult, and Werdegast is afraid of cats.

Yes, it’s all a bit convoluted, but somehow none of that matters, because at the center of it all Karloff and Lugosi make wonderful adversaries. The way they toy with each other’s emotions and psyche becomes a waltz of intimidation. Manners and Wells seem to only be there to get into danger as the battle escalates. In fact Wells’ soul purpose is apparently to scream and be rescued. In another era this film could have been just the two men and a chessboard. The two leads are all it really needs.

Of course there are a few other elements that make The Black Cat stand out. There’s a gruesome, though mostly left to the imagination, torture scene at the end, and there’s Poelzig’s rather perverse inclination for collecting the corpses of beautiful women (including Werdegast’s wife) in glass cases. Nice components, but they’re hastily assembled. Like The Mummy, the movie’s greatest assets are its stars.

And if you’ve never read the Edgar Allan Poe story that lends its name to the film, don’t worry about spoilers. Of the three Poe adaptations I’ve viewed so far, this one bears the least resemblance to its source material. In fact, I think the only reason Lugosi’s character has a fear of cats is to justify the title.

This week’s supporting features:

Tom and Jerry in The Midnight Snack (1941)

The Our Gang short The Pooch (1932)

Next time:

She-Wolf of London (1946) starring June Lockhart, Don Porter, Sara Haden, and Jan Wiley

A Study in Classic Horror- DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936)

Dracula’s Daughter is a strange attempt at continuing the story from 1931’s Dracula. Universal was obviously desperate to cash-in on the first movie’s success. At it’s heart it’s a worthy story, and might have done better if it were allowed to stand on its own rather than use the Browning / Lugosi film as a crutch.

The core story is intriguing. The title character, Countess Marya Zaleska, played by Gloria Holden, is actually trying to free herself of the curse that consumed her father. When Dracula’s death fails to rid her of her hunger for human blood, she turns to a psychiatrist, Otto Kruger as Dr. Jeffrey Garth, for help. I found the idea of vampirism as addiction a refreshing take on the genre, even if Dr. Garth’s methods of surrounding an addict with that which tempts him or her are absurd in today’s world. The Countess’ desire to rehabilitate herself makes her a much more sympathetic character than her father. She comes off, not as evil, but as a soul tortured by her own needs.

I really enjoyed Gloria Holden’s performance. It might easily be mistaken as lifeless, but I think it’s just right. The sadness in her eyes and mysteriousness in her voice are just what the character requires. I even wonder if her portrayal had any influence on Carolyn Jones years later in The Addams Family. If only the rest of the film had been more tightly constructed.

The first problem the film has is its attempt to begin exactly where Dracula left off. This movie opens just moments after the last one’s climax as two policeman discover the body of Renfield, and Professor Van Helsing (again played by Edward Van Sloan) emerges from the next room having just staked the Count. He is immediately arrested under suspicion of double murder. I suspect with no television or home video market, the filmmakers assumed audiences would simply forget that John Harker and Mina were also on the scene, or that Doctor Seward could corroborate Van Helsing’s story. Van Helsing seems to have forgotten as well because he can only think to defend his case by bringing his colleague, Dr. Garth in to vouch for his character. Somehow, even in the 1930s, I doubt audiences were that forgetful.

Another problem is the film’s use of humor. In other horror classics like Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Werewolf of London humor balances out the more serious aspects of the stories rather well. Here it seems odd and fairly forced. I’ve read in the early stages of developing a Dracula sequel that James Whale was the first choice to direct. As Whale directed two of the films I just mentioned, I wonder if the awkward use of humor here was an attempt to imitate Whale’s style.

Finally, in need of a climax, the last act of the film abandons the psychological plot threads to fall back on the old rescuing-the-damsel cliché. The Countess abruptly give up on her decades-old quest for inner peace and decides to embrace her curse, although in a bit of a twist, Dr. Garth was willing to share her curse in order to save the damsel.

With a better script, the Countess could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her more iconic counterpart from Bride of Frankenstein; instead she’s relegated to mere cult status. Still the film is worth watching, and maybe occasionally revisiting thanks to an enjoyable performance by its lead actress.

This week’s supporting features:

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy in Orphan’s Benefit (1934)

The Our Gang short Spanky (1932)

Next time:

The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Julie Bishop