Sunday, January 18, 2009

Recent movies

It's been very VERY cold here the last few weeks - too cold and too much snow to even get out into the backyard with the dog. As a result, we've been watching a fair number of movies since Christmas, and I thought I'd write some little descriptions of them.

I got Dean the last of the Fox Charlie Chan movies -these are the early Sidney Toler ones. Fox stopped producing the series after Pearl Harbour. I can see why they stopped the Mr. Moto series at the same time, but I was surprised that the documentary on the last dvd stated that Fox didn't think an Asian detective would be appropriate. Charlie Chan had always been an American, unlike Mr. Moto, and the Chinese were the victims in WWII. Perhaps they were worried that the public wouldn't be able to tell the difference? Hard to believe. Anyway, the series did continue under a different studio but the wartime and post-war movies weren't as good.

We weren't expecting to enjoy the Sidney Toler Chans as much as the Warner Oland ones, but we were pleasantly surprised. I like Oland's personality as Chan better than Toler's but the transition was pretty smooth. Oland always had a fatherly sort of warmth and humour about him; Toler was much more hard-edged and cagy. I can easily see criminals underestimating Oland's Chan - a similar dynamic was used for Columbo, of the diffident, self-effacing detective who pretends that he's easily confused but really is sharp as a tack. By contrast, Sidney Toler played Chan much more like a poker player, hiding his thoughts from everyone instead of luring the villain into a feeling of complacency. I can't imagine anyone feeling relaxed and complacent around Sidney Toler.

Maybe that's why there's a different atmosphere to these movies, more dark shadows and gloom. Part of it must be attributable to budget, of course. The early Chans were high-class productions; the first one even was shot on location in Honolulu. The sets were nice, the settings were exotic - Egypt, Shanghai, Paris, Monte Carlo, London. You could almost group them as "Charlie Chan's World Tour", as Chan seemed to go from one exciting location to another, and the movies were sometimes even linked by means of a passing line - 'Heard about that case you solved in London, Charlie' as the great detective arrives in the new location.

The Toler movies seem a lot darker, almost with film noir elements in the sets and lighting. Some of them seem to take place in a perpetual gloom. 'City in Darkness' takes place in Paris, during air-raid rehearsals. Not just the sets are dark, but the whole atmosphere is fearful and tense. 'Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum' also takes place entirely at night, and it is unusual in that almost the whole thing takes place inside the wax museum, producing a very claustrophobic atmosphere. 'Dead Men Tell' is another nighttime mystery - I think it's taking place in San Francisco, so it's all dark and foggy, and the story takes place on board a boat in harbour and on the wharves at night. One thing I found interesting about these movies was the way the secondary characters (mostly suspects) were made largely unpleasant, unappealing people. They still had the usual romance between the young woman and young man (one or both of whom are suspected of the murder) but they no longer bother giving these people very strong personalities, so not only do they come across as cardboard characters, they can't create much sympathy. In 'Dead Men Tell', I'd have been happy to find out that any of them was the killer. Only the Captain had a strong personality, the others were all variations on shifty/selfish/superficial.

I think 'Wax Museum' was the one of best of the Fox Toler movies. Some of it was genuinely spooky, like the working electric chair rigged to fry Chan in a revenge plot. And the criminal who's had a face lift and is hiding out in the museum goes about with his head completely wrapped in bandages; seeing that white bandaged face staring out from the shadows is rather creepy - rather like 'The Invisible Man'. The one I really liked best was 'Charlie Chan at Treasure Island', which revolves around a magician trying to expose a fake psychic. Interesting that the psychic was called 'The Great Radhini' - maybe that's where 'The Amazing Randi' got his stage name. It was interesting to see that it very matter-of-factly exposed stage magic tricks; it's become traditional in murder mysteries that a stage magician must "refuse to reveal the secrets of his trade", and there's usually a rigmarole about forcing him to do it, or else the detective has to figure out how himself. In this movie, they just show the way the table flips over and a dummy takes the place of the volunteer for levitation, and an elevator carries the girl out of the mysterious Egyptian mummy case into the basement, so everyone can think she's disappeared.

The other thing I watched was a nostalgic return to a show I saw as a kid: the British TV series "Doctor In The House" about the misadventures of British medical students at St. Swithin's teaching hospital. I saw the first two seasons, and I once again had the all too frequent experience of revisiting something that I remembered as hilarious, only to find that it wasn't that great after all. That's not to say that it wasn't funny - I actually did laugh a fair bit, which is the main point of such light entertainment after all. But the humour and the topics had dated. Though not, to my great surprise, the clothes and hairstyles, at least for the first season (1969). The men's hair looked a bit shaggy, but the clothes were really pretty normal, and rather formal - they almost always wore jackets and ties, and didn't take the ties off even at home! By 1970 (season 2), things were going downhill style-wise; Paul Collyer's hair looked like a black hairsprayed helmet - maybe this is where Eugene Levy got the idea for Bobby Bittman's solid hairdo. And the psychedelic designs were starting to make an appearance, mostly in shiny, sleazy-looking fabrics. In one scene, a character was wearing an orange swirly shirt, with a matching tie. And when I say matching, I mean MATCHING - the tie was made from the exact same fabric!

I wouldn't say all the episodes revolved around chasing girls, but there were definitely a lot of girls around to chase, and precious little else to do with them. Someone's Swedish girlfriend seemed to turn up in her undies every few episodes. The writing was generally on the lame side, with more booze and booby jokes than I remembered. For all the talk about how the Pythons were responsible for writing this show, I noticed that John Cleese and Graham Chapman together wrote exactly ONE episode - the first one, and the writing was noticeably better than anything else in the two seasons. I think Chapman collaborated on another two episodes, but they weren't anything special. The writing was basically the sort of thing college boys would find funny - not surprising, as they wrote and acted the show. I was astounded, though, by the sort of basic filmmaking mistakes in most of the episodes. Really simple stuff, like boom mics showing up all the time, or else setting the lighting so the microphone shadows fall on the sets. The sort of stuff that got on TV in Britain in the '70s! It was like handing production over to a bunch of college cinema students.

The first episode was good because it introduced the great Professor Loftus, and provided enough personality for him to carry through the rest of the series. Now that I think about it, I realize that he really was a very Cleeseian character, almost an early draft for Basil Fawlty (Lofty/Fawlty? Hmmmm) He really owns this episode; he was good as the withering panelist during Upton's entrance exam, but he was really great during the "welcoming" lecture, when he goes from a laconic and contemptuous drawl to an explosion of vituperation in about .5 seconds, because he sees a student slouching in his seat. Not only is it disrespectful and unprofessional, it's bad for the back! Suitable for barcrawlers and pimps, but not doctors!

Loftus was good in a later episode too, when he mercilessly drills Upton and Waring in a viva exam on their dissection skills. It's their fault, because they've been goofing off, but he reduces them to helpless jelly in less than a minute as they stand over the severed arm they are supposed to be studying. "A man with a ruptured artery can bleed to death in 30 seconds. And if you don't know the right answer, he'll die, Upton. Die! There on the floor in front of your eyes! See him? Well, come on, Upton, you've only got 20 seconds left! He's bleeding, man! What's the answer? Ten seconds! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! HE'S DEAD!!! And it's your fault, Upton! Blood all over the floor!" The students stand there, paralyzed with shock. Dean tells me that this technique is still used in Foreign Service exams, to test a candidate's ability to think under pressure.

Loftus was probably the best character in the series. I might go ahead and get the third season - Doctor in Charge - just because it's very light, silly entertainment


Anonymous George Pal said...

Really enjoyed the post. I well remember the “Doctor In The House” series. Well, actually, the only thing I remember is how hilarious it was. Thanks for the heads up on how it’s held up – or not.

Also was a great fan of the all the detective series including the Chans. I still vacillate as to which I like better, Oland or Toler. Just saw, for the first time, “Three Godfathers” – the 1936 Boleslawski version later remade by John Ford and John Wayne. The ’36 version had a somewhat odd cast. Toler (Chan) played one of the bandits, Lewis Stone (Andy Hardy’s father), played another, and the gang leader was played by Chester Morris (Boston Blackie series). I’d never have expected it but it was very good and Chester Morris was exceptionally good.

9:58 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

That was fairly typical of Toler's pre-Chan career; he mostly played secondary characters, and usually a baddie. Warner Oland had more distinguished roles before he took on the Chan mantle, going back to the silent era. I was surprised when watching 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' with Douglas Fairbanks, to see that Warner Oland played the Queen of Spain's cousin, the Austrian Archduke Paul, destined to die at the hands of the villainous Don Sebastien. Both of them, once they took on the role of Charlie Chan, pretty much played that role until the end of their life.

11:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been rewatching occasionally "On The Buses" on VisionTV, of all places and, interesting, how distinctive and funny a characterInspector Blackie (Stephen Lewis) and the brother-in-law (Michael Robbins). Best part of the show.
It also shows 1970's fashion crimes pretty well and a lot of sexist stuff. Same fanatical fascination with "birds"
Is "Doctor in the House" available on DVD in Canada?
A favourite of my youth. I was sad to learn about Barry Evans sad end a few years ago.

11:44 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

That sexist humour was very popular in Britain back in the 70s. We roll our eyes at things like 'Benny Hill', but there's a reason those shows were made and went on for years - people liked them! And there's a lot more that we never saw in North America. SCTV did a wonderful sketch spoofing British TV - Guy Caballero addressed the audience, saying that he'd been getting a lot of mail from viewers requesting more British broadcasting, because everyone thought it was so genteel and witty. He came right out and said that PBS gets the best British stuff, like 'Masterpiece Theate', and what's left is really BAD. Then they showed some dire talk show out of Yorkshire, where the host is a long-haired dork whose guest is "Betty, from Betty's Teashop", and on comes Andrea Martin as a nose-ringed, spiky-haired punk who proceeds to relate her dreams. It was ghastly, with a weird kind of "taken from life" vibe - I know that whoever wrote it had been stuck in a hotel room in England once, and could find nothing to watch but soccer, a game show and THIS.

I don't think 'Doctor in the House' has ever been released on Region 1 dvd, except maybe for a few selected episodes. I got my first 2 seasons on ebay, and it's clear that someone converted the Region 2 dvds to the North American format, so technically I guess they're bootlegs. But the quality is still quite good, and I found them quite watchable and enjoyable.

12:46 pm  

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