Saturday, 30 June 2012

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

An adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr Moreau", "Island of Lost Souls" stars Charles Laughton as Moreau, Richard Arlen, as the hero and Bela Lugosi as one of Moreau's creations.

Edward Parker (Arlen) was on his way to meet his fiancée when the ship he was in sank. The sole survivor, he is saved by a merchant ship on its way to Moreau's island, with a cargo of wild animals. However being a reckless hero he antagonises the captain who leaves him with the cargo in the hands of Moreau...

I never read the original novel (published in 1896), but it's obvious Darwin's theories were Wells' s inspiring source. The motif of playing god, of seeing how far you can tamper with Nature and get away with it, were a clear inspiration for late 19th century writers. Moreau, the god, keeps his beasts under strict control by forcing them a mantra of rules which they must obey, among them, "you must not kill ". His own downfall comes, unsurprisingly, when he breaks his own rules while trying to hold onto to power. The ending is something to behold, and probably the reason the film was banned in the UK on its original release (it was probably not an easy view in a colonial context) - it also shows what the ending of Tod Browning's "Freaks" could have been if MGM hadn't got cold feet. As for this film, it was finally allowed in the UK with cuts in 1958, and in 1996 without them. To illustrate how times have changed, the uncut version is now rated PG, the second lowest rating the BBFC issues - how times change.

Laughton is a pleasure to watch. He plays Moreau with a camp delight which surpasses even his Nero in DeMille's "The Sign of the Cross". In a sense, in 1932 Hollywood and in Laughton's hands, the film becomes a duel between the evil gay man and the straigh hero, played rather blandly by Arlen (who I saw to much better effect recently in "Beggars of Life"). Arlen's character recklessness is just a way to assert his macho heterosexuality, as his is "must get to my fiancée" constant speech. Unsuprisingly, the hero's victory is more due to the intervention of others (the Panther Woman) than his own, as he can't stop and think (as it probably affect his street cred). Moreau's demise reminded me of that of another gay man in cinema, the ever faceless Sebastian Venable in "Suddenly, Last Summer". I wonder if Tennessee Williams got inspiration here for his play (or for that matter, Gore Vidal, who co-wrote the script with Williams).

Arthur Hohl held his strong against Laughton and Kathleen Burke was allowed to show some female sexuality (with the pale excuse of being not exactly human), while the rest of the cast (Lugosi included) is pretty indifferent.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Government Girl (1943)

According to IMDb's trivia section on this film, Olivia de Havilland, its star, hated the film. Whether this is true or not, I can't say. But I certainly wouldn't blame her. This is a poorly scripted, poorly cast, poorly directed romantic comedy. If she didn't boycott her own performance on purpose (as suggested) then this is even worst that I thought.

A bit of context here - de Havilland in the early 1940s was still under contract to Warner Bros. Her star had been rising since 1935 and "Captain Blood",  but with "Gone with the Wind" in 1939 and "Hold Back the Dawn" in 1941, both loans elsewhere, she finally got some respect from the studio. So she got better parts, for instance in "The Strawberry Blond" and the good sister in "In This Our Life". Then they loaned her to Selznick, who in turn loaned her to RKO for this tripe. It must clearly have felt as demotion/punishment and probably weighted heavily in her landmark decision to sue the studio the following year.

The film basically concerns a secretary falling in love with her boss. This has been done before many times over, and sometimes well. This is clearly not one of them - the characters are one dimensional, and there are way too many plot lines that either get nowhere or are just filling (the first act of the film is completely filling, concerning the lack of a room for de Havilland's roommate to consummate her wedding). Of course it doesn't help that the whole cast is not bothered (de Havilland), has underwritten parts (Agnes Moorehead), or is just terrible (pretty much everyone else, except Harry Davenport doing one of his wise old men which he did with his eyes closed). The leading man (Sonny Tufts) and the second banana (Jess Barker) are particularly dull. As all this suggests, the film isn't funny. (What was it with the shoes?!) It also managed to produce in me a complete indifference to the fate of all characters, despite the extremely predictability of the ending.

The only interesting points were the opening details where we can see all the women pursuing the (very few) available men and the gimmick with "Heloise and Abelard" showing both characters had a romantic side. This would have been much better though had they been properly presented as having "efficient" and workahoolic facade.

All in all, this is a good example of how routine Hollywood studios could be, even to the war effort message: boy meets girl, girl thinks she's in love with second banana; boy is ideallistic but has excellent idea to help the war effort; girl helps him; second banana turns out to be not as nice as we thought, etc, etc. You get the picture. I think today people forget that they really were assembly lines and/or don't realise the true meaning of B-film (or in this case a few letters down the alphabet, even if it's meant, I assume an A one...). In case they need to be reminded, this a good example: flat, dull and uninspired, and a waste of a excellent actress.

PS - the Hitler and Hirohito caricatures on Ed Browne's office are supposed to be his? Cause if they are they should have told the (excellent) artist not to sign it...

PPS - Some of the other posters for this film are worth looking at for the crass, tasteless and misogynistic taglines: "Manpower shortage? Not for this girl friday"; "When the men are ONE to TEN... a gal's gotta be good" - oh, and neither reflect the film...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Maria Keil (1914-2012)

Maria Keil was a Portuguese artist, whose most visible works are seen by millions every day although most people don't glance at it twice: from the 1950s to the 1970s she did the original tile decorations for Lisbon's underground network, except for one station, where it still stands today (*). With this work, she helps modernise a traditional art form in Portugal, reinventing it to the 20th Century - something so many others continue to do to this day. She wasn't allowed to use any figures as that was seen as distracting. So she used geometric/abstract patterns.

She also did a lot of more traditional graphic work, particularly book covers and illustrations. The photos below were taken by yours truly - if I had more talent and material adjusted to take photos inside underground stations they would have out come much better. Alas, it should give some idea.

(*) In two stations (Saldanha and São Sebastião) the original tiles got removed for some reason, and in Restauradores, some of it was also lost during renovation works. Everything else is still there, and the new decoration in São Sebastião is also hers (last photo). It seems it was her last work.