Sunday, April 25, 2021

Six Hours to Live

Six hours to live

Directed by
William Dieterle
Written by Morton Barteaux and Gorgon Morris(original story), Bradley King (screenplay)
Starring Warner Baxter, Miriam Jordan, John Boles, George F. Marion, Halliwell Hobbes, Irene Ware, Beryl Mercer
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

Hollywood was slow to embrace science fiction. Outside of Frankenstein and SF horror, it didn’t really crop up until the 1950, and didn’t become respectable until 20 years later. I was delighted to find a pre-code example when I heard about Six Hours to Live.*

Captain Paul Onslow (Warner Baxter) is representing his county at a treaty conference, where he is the only opposition. His position leads to death threats and when he is returning back to the place he is staying with Baroness Valerie von Sturm (Miriam Jordon), someone takes a shot at him. It misses, but it leads Valerie to fall in love with him, much to the consternation of Karl Kranz (John Boles), her long time friend who loves her. Meanwhile Professor Otto Bauer (George F. Marion) visits the home of Valerie’s father, Baron von Sturm (Halliwell Hobbes) with an exciting new device that can bring the dead back to life – but only for six hours. And when Onslow is strangled, they want to bring him back to catch his murderer.

The idea is a great one, and could have been made into a taut thriller like D.O.A. Unfortunately, they went in a more philosophical direction. I suppose there isn’t much suspense possible with Onslow knowing his murderer from the start, but the story does drag a bit. Still there some good moments, most notably when Onslow gives his money to a prostitute (Irene Ware) in order to give her a new start.**

Warner Baxter was a big star at the time, having just won the first Oscar for Best Actor, and ended up with a long career, most notably as the lead in 42nd Street the same year. Most of the rest of the cast had far shorter careers.

Director William Dieterle was also quite successful, usually with biographies and period dramas. He also did the Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935.

It’s hard to determine the success of the film. Despite the presence of Baxter and some good reviews (The New York Times spoke highly of it), it seemed to have just faded away.

It’s an interesting example of an early SF trope and certainly deserves rediscovery.

*A terrific title.

**This being pre-Code, they are quite upfront about her occupation. In fact, Ware is billed as “The Prostitute” in the credits. the Times, however, listed the character as “The Woman” in their review.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet)

A Trip to Mars

Directed by
Written by Ole Olsen from a novel by Sophus Michaelis
Starring Gunnar Tolnæs, Zanny Petersen, Nichola Neiiendam, Alf Blutücher, Svend Kornbeck, Lily Jacobson, Philip Bech, Frederik Jacobsen
IMDB Entry
View entire film on Youtube

People tend to forget how international the silent film industry was. Hollywood was king, but many other countries had film industries and it was relatively easy to translate films so they could be seen in different languages. A Trip to Mars was an example from the Danish film industry, and is a landmark film in many respects.

Avanti Plantearos (Gunnar Tolnæs) decides to make his mission to travel to Mars. Aided by his father (Nicolai Neiiendam) and sister Corona (Zanny Petersen), he spends two years developing the space ship Excelsior, his work scoffed at by Professor Dubius,* who has tried and failed. Nevertheless, Avanti gathers a crew, including his friend Dr. Kraft (Alfe Blütecher) and the American David Dane (Svend Kornbeck). They journey takes months, and after surviving a mutiny, they land on Mars, an advanced civilization of vegetarians who have eliminated all conflict. Trouble ensues, and Avanti is aided by Marya (Lilly Jacobson), daugther of the Mars’s leader (Philip Bech).

The movie it notable in being the first feature science fiction film. Though there were short subjects earlier (e.g., Méliès, A Trip to the Moon), feature films were rare, and science fiction was not considered a good subject. Many of the elements soon became clichés, but weren’t tired in 1918.**

The movie consists of a a series of episodes.*** The mutiny story is quite good for the time, as is the lightning storm and Avanti’s trial.

The film is also a spirited plea for pacifism. Since it was shot while World War I was raging, that’s understandable (Denmark was neutral in the war). There was also a religious theme that seems a bit heavy-handed.

Director Holger-Madsen was an actor and director and continued to direct in Denmark into the 1930s. Of course, once sound came in, markets constricted and Denmark was at an especial disadvantage because the Danish-speaking market was small. Subtitling a movie was far more expensive than reshooting the intertitles, and there was always the problem of not losing them against the background. Danish film suffered and they struggled. The next science fiction film out of Denmark was Reptilicus In 1961.

Overall, though the film is a fascinating look at early cinema, and the effects are pretty good for the time.

Note: The movie is one of many that are available from the Danish Silent Film Website. It’s worth a look if you are interested in silents, and the prints are beautiful

*The pun might be unintentional (the Danish word for “dubious” is “tvivlsom”) but appropriate. Given the other punny names, though (“Avanti” is Italian for “Forward,” for example) they might have actually meant it, or possibly the name was added by a playful translator.

**I don’t know how popular the film was in the US, but it’s unlikely to have influenced Hollywood films. The Excelsior resembles the spaceships in the Flash Gordon serials, but I doubt it was an influence.

***It’s listed as being “in Six Parts,” but I don’t know if it was shown that way or as one film.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Horn Blows at Midnight (TV)

Directed by
Ralph Levy
Written by Leo Davis, Leonard Gerhse, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock, Jr
Starring Jack Benny, Dorothy Malone, Lester Matthews, Harry Shearer
IMDB Entry

As you remember from last time, Jack Benny got a lot of comic mileage from the flop of The Horn Blows at Midnight. But he didn’t seem to actually dislike the movie and In 1949, he starred in a radio version. Then, four years later, it appeared on TV on the show Omnibus.

Omnibus was the type of highbrow show that ran in the early years of television, hosted by Alistair Cook, featured programming about the arts, music, and original plays. The Horn Blows at Midnight was an attempt to produce something a little less highbrow and used Jack Benny’s name to get people to watch.

There is one big difference in the setup of the show. The story is not a dream, probably the biggest misstep in the movie. This time Anthaniel (Benny) is an angel to begin with, send down to Earth to blow the trumpet that will end the world.

Horn Blows at Midnight
Athaniel is given the horn
that will destroy the world

Benny was in his element on the small screen. It helped that a couple of the writers had worked with him on radio, with Howard Snyder making a career of it. The jokes were changed to play up Benny’s TV/radio mannerisms – his vanity and his cheapness. It’s far more gentle. It the original, Benny wakes up just as he’s about the destroy the world; in this, he starts to think that the world doesn’t have to be destroyed from the beginning.

Alexis Smith is replaced by Dorothy Malone, who was just becoming well known and ended up with an Oscar in 1957. The Chief was now Lester Matthews, who became a very busy TV actor.

Much like the original movie, a child actor became a mildly big name when he grew up. Harry Shearer (as Tom) appeared on the final season of the original SNL and was Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap. He also did a lot of voice work, including on The Simpsons.

The show probably was seen by a bigger audience than the original, but that isn’t had to manage. Omnibus was not about ratings. It was sponsored by the Ford Foundation as a way to raise the tone of TV programming and ran Sunday afternoons, a dead time before sports took over. At the time The Horn Blows at Midnight was run, CBS (which aired Omnibus) didn’t even have the rights to the NFL games. They kept in on the air despite weak ratings because of the prestige and the multiple Emmys it won.  It switched to NBC for its last few seasons, with episodes also airing for one year on ABC, making it one of the few shows on three networks.

The TV version is certainly not a classic, but there are plenty of good moments it in, and it was more of a success than the movie.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Horn Blows at Midnight

Horn Blows at Midnight

Directed by
Raoul Walsh
Written by Sam Hellman & Jerome V. Kern (screenplay) based on an idea by Aubrey Wisberg
Starring Jack Benny, Alexis Smith, Allyn Joslyn, Guy Kibbee, Franklin Pangborn, Margeret Dumont, Robert Blake
IMDB Entry

Some movies get a bad reputation despite the fact they aren’t all that bad.* It’s even worse when their star turns it all into a joke. Jack Benny often got laughs by referring to his movie The Horn Blows at Midnight and most would think of it as a total misfire. But Benny often joked about things that just were not true** and he saw the references to the movie as a potential for laughs and kept at it. What was on the screen may have flopped, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Athanael (Jack Benny) is third trumpet in a radio band, but never gets the opportunity to play the highbrow music he wants to play, despite the encouragement of his girlfriend Elizabeth (Alexis Smith). During a commercial, he falls asleep and dreams he’s been delegated by the Chief (Guy Kibbee) to play the trumpet at midnight to destroy the Earth, which has been a disappointment. So Athanael is sent to Earth to fulfill his mission.

The movie is gently humorous throughout. Benny basically just plays himself, though without the usual running jokes that he was famous for. Alexis Smith is good as his love interest.*** The film is pretty much par for the course for comedies of that day.  

The film is filled with the great character actors of the time and even has a small role for Robert Blake, who became a star many years later in Baretta.****

Director Raoul Walsh was a Hollywood veteran with many successes, but primarily with action movies like The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra, He also did comedies, but this was his first attempt at fantasy/comedy. He continued with great films like White Heat.

So why the bad reputation? Certainly Benny had everything to do with it. He often joked about how terrible it was and it certainly was a major flop. I can see several reasons for that. First of all, President Roosevelt died only a week before it premiered, so people were not in the mood for a comedy. In addition, people probably didn’t want to go to a movie about the end of the world while World War II was still raging. And it’s tricky to root for Athaneal trying to kill everyone on Earth. Finally, any story that shows it’s happening in a dream is going to end with the dreamer waking up, removing any stakes from the story.*****

The studio clearly saw the problems with the set up: their trailer makes no mention of any of the plot and plays up the idea of Jack Benny as a romantic lead (Jack Benny?). I understand why they didn’t talk about the story, but the quickest way to turn off an audience is by false advertising.

So the movie was a notorious flop, made more notorious by it becoming a punchline in Benny’s show. Still,it’s a decent 40s supernatural comedy.

But Benny didn’t hate it all that much: he did a radio version a few years later, and redid it for television for Omnibus in 1953. I’ll talk about that version next week.

*Ishtar, for example.

**I can’t think of any comedian who was so self-effacing, always ready to make himself the butt of a joke. He made a career of playing up his miserliness, but in real life he was a generous man

***Benny resisted her casting, not because he had any objection to her acting or personality, but because he was old enough to be her father.

****Blake actually started out with Our Gang comedies, using the name Mickey Gubitosi. He had a small role in the classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre" as the boy who sells Bogart the lottery ticket.

*****This may have been a way to soften the concept for audiences, but it was a poor one.