In Our Opinion

YOU OUGHT TO BE ON VIDEO

By • Jan 2nd, 2002 •

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Every so often, I’m going to feature an article on films that have never seen a video release, and therefore have become unavailable to the public. I feel all these films are either highly entertaining or historically important, and should not be hidden in the dark. Some of them have either slipped into public domain, or worse yet, are owned by companies who feel there isn’t a strong enough market. If you feel there is a film that has fallen into this sad fate, please e-mail me at Gandreiev@aol.com, and I will try to include it in future issues

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

I can safely say this is the best silent horror movie. Paul Leni’s lavish 1928 production about an exiled 18th century lord whose mouth was carved into a monstrous grin during childhood still issues quite an emotional impact on it’s audience. It has it all, horror, pathos, romance, and sensuality. Conrad Veidt stars in the title role, and while his mouth is fixed in that awful smile, he conveys enormous emotion through his eyes, hands, and shoulder gestures.

The incredible period costumes and sets help make it a perfect cinematic fairy tale. Brandon Hurst and Olga Baclanova (the evil trapeze woman from Freaks) are the wicked, castle dwelling villains (note: Miss Baclanova graces the film with a hot, sexy performance). Mary Philbin (the mask-puller from The Phantom Of The Opera) is sweetness personified as Veidt’s wholesome, but totally blind love interest.

Universal produced The Man Who Laughs, a terrific dress rehearsal for their upcoming sound horror classics. Occasional bootleg companies come and go with okay video releases of this film, but Universal never released their prized silent on video. I had the good fortune of catching a screening of The Man Who Laughs at the 1999 New York Film Festival. It was one of my few overwhelming movie-going experiences in the past few years.

JUST IMAGINE

Picture a very strange, amazingly corny ‘Cracked Magazine’ spoof of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and you have Just Imagine, a wild science fiction musical comedy made in 1930. The film imagines what New York would be like in 1980. The Big Apple is pictured as being all glass art deco, with mini-rockets replacing cars, and a government that tells people whom you should marry. Just Imagine was made during Prohibition and before the strict Hays Office clamped down with film censorship. This film is jam packed with drinking jokes and naughty bits. (Examples: A trip to Mars proves Martian women love to drink. A musical number danced by a woman practically falling out of her flimsy dress ends with a shot of mating houseflies!) This out-of-its-mind classic remains almost unseen today. It stars the dreadfully unfunny El Brendel (doing his signature Swede imitation) and a very young Maureen O’Sullivan.

LILIOM

Late in 1933, Germany’s greatest film-maker, Fritz Lang, fled Germany and the Nazi regime. He re-located in Paris, which proved to be a pit stop for other refugee German film-makers and actors such as Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk, Oscar Homolka, Franz Waxman, and Peter Lorre. During his short stay in Paris, Lang made a film for Fox Europa Studios, an adaptation of Fernac Molnar’s fantasy/romance – Liliom. (Liliom was later the basis for the musical Carousel)

This fun little fantasy centers on Liliom, a charming but sometimes brutal Parisian cad (played with energy by up-and-coming Charles Boyer.) He dies during a battle with police and is sent to a mistake-prone bureaucratic Heaven with angelic clerks, courts etc. The Heavenly court allows Liliom to briefly return to the wife and daughter he left behind on Earth.

Liliom has never been released in the United States. It very rarely plays in film festivals. Lang had a print of the film, and screened it a few times for friends in the 20th Century Fox Projection Room. “Liliom I liked very much” he said during a lecture at the American Film Institute in 1974 “I like Liliom almost best of all my films.”

THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND

On a pre-dawn morning in April 1865, Dr. Samuel Mudd put a splint on a traveling stranger’s broken leg. That stranger turned out to be John Wilkes Booth. This chance encounter caused Dr. Mudd to be convicted as a conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln. Dr. Mudd was given a life sentence at Dry Tortogas, a hell-on-earth military prison off the Florida coast.

John Ford’s suspenseful 1936 film version of Dr. Mudd’s plight, The Prisoner Of Shark Island, has to be one of the first films to question our Government’s ethics (the Kangaroo court that unjustly imprisoned Mudd.) His film is wonderfully researched, with accurate, ironic details (such as the soldier who held a parasol over Booth accomplice Mary Surrat, to protect her head from the sun on the way to her hanging!)

What also drives the film are the incredible performances. Warner Baxter is excellent as Dr. Mudd and Gloria Stuart (60 years before appearing in Titanic) plays his wife. The real scene-stealer is young John Carradine as a mentally twisted prison guard who idolized Lincoln. Whenever he has to punish Dr. Mudd, his eyes look as if they become satanic high beams! No wonder Ford used him so often in future films.

THE BIG CARNIVAL

Billy Wilder calls The Big Carnival, his 1951 cinematic expose on journalism, his “runt of my litter”. This “runt” showed such a dark, acidic side of human nature, audiences stayed away. In one of his best performances, Kirk Douglas stars as slick, urbane reporter Chuck Tatum. Tatum and his protégé photographer stumble upon a disaster out in the middle of New Mexico. A mine collapsed on a lone man deep in a cave. Local engineers figure he can be dug out within the day, but Tatum talks them into a “safer”, more time consuming rescue plan. This is to simply allow Tatum a few days to milk this story for all it’s worth, have it become a national sensation, and win him the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. “I always waited for my time up at bat” Tatum tells a crooked sheriff “And now I just hit a home run… out of the ballpark!” Throughout the film, none of the lead characters seem to care about anyone else. They all figure how they can profit from the trapped miner’s dilemma. This includes Tatum, the trapped man’s floozy wife, and the sheriff. Towards the end of this true classic, Tatum gets a faint spark of humanity, but it’s way too late.

KING KONG ESCAPES

This 1967 Japanese/US co-production is basically what a James Bond film would look like had it been written by an four year old. Japanese monster film-maker Inoshiro Honda combined his formula of Tokyo demolishing monsters with the then popular James Bond style spy movie. Criminal mastermind Doctor Hu (Eisei Amamoto) kidnaps King Kong off his island so Kong can be forced into digging deep in the earth for a rare, powerful metal alloy! Hu has built a mechanical Kong that looks like the flesh and blood Kong. At the end the two Kongs have an amazingly thrilling battle atop Tokyo Tower.

You know Honda meant this film to be fun, a kiddie matinee film in high gear. The dialog is at times, priceless (Example: A Kong Isle native describes Hu as “A devil with the eyes of a gutter rat.”) One time Bond girl Mie Hama is the alluring femme fatale. American Rhodes Reason and Japanese monster flick regular Akira Takarada fill in Sean Connery’s shoes. (Reason commented on how he was treated like visiting royalty working on this Tokyo based shoot. A dozen crew people were on his staff, and his dressing room at Toho Studios spanned half a floor!) Kong sized fun with this movie!

DARKER THAN AMBER

Rod Taylor stars here as Travis McGee, author John McDonald’s rugged, Southern private eye. Trouble begins after McGee rescues a beautiful young girl (Suzy Kendall) from a murderous brute (William Smith). Smith, (memorable as tough bad guys in Rich Man-Poor Man, Red Dawn, and a slew of sixties biker movies), electrifies the screen in his search for Kendall. Those who stand in his way are met with frightening violence (The most harrowing is the scene where Smith corners a kindly banjo playing ol’ timer.)

When Smith finally encounters McGee, one of the wildest fist fights in film history begins. The fight was so brutal, that both Taylor and Smith wound up with real-life gruesome injuries. Darker Than Amber‘s seldom TV appearances are marred by the fight scene being censored and chopped down. Video Search Of Miami is one of the few, and maybe the only video company to carry an uncut version of this 1970 sleeper.

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