What I Watched in December 2020
Even though there's plenty of time to squeeze in another movie or two in 2020, I think this is going to do it. What a year... My December watching includes some holiday movies, silent movies, a TV series, Werner Herzog, and some last-minute discoveries. Hope you'll find something to enjoy here:
The Girl with the Hat Box (1927) Boris Barnet (Kanopy)
Many thanks to Movies Silently for introducing me to this delightful silent comedy set during 1920s Russia, which was experiencing an enormous housing shortage. Not the stuff of comedy? It is here, with a young woman named Natasha (Anna Sten) making hats for a Moscow hat store when she stumbles across a poor university student with no place to live. Can she pass him off as her husband and get away with it? You can read more about this film at Movies Silently, and if you have Kanopy, please check it out.
Calling Dr. Death (1943) Reginald Le Borg (Inner Sanctum Mysteries Blu-ray box set, Mill Creek)
This first film in the new Mill Creek Inner Sanctum Mysteries release kicks off the set with Lon Chaney Jr. (who appears in all six films as different characters) starring as neurologist Dr. Steele, who’s having memory problems lately. That can be a pretty big problem when your cheating wife (Ramsay Ames) is found murdered. These movies (based on the popular radio series) are low-budget fun, and J. Carrol Naish does his thing as a pesky investigator.
The Last Laugh (1924) F. W. Murnau (Kanopy) Rewatch, 2x
Research for our Great Movies virtual library movie discussion. Is one of the most groundbreaking silent films marred by its ending? We couldn’t come to a consensus. What do you think?
X: The Unknown (1956) Joseph Losey, Leslie Norman (Shout Factory Blu-ray)
If you like the Quatermass films, you’re going to enjoy the early Hammer film X: The Unknown. (This was actually supposed to be a Quatermass film. For more on that, check out this article. Near Glasgow, when a group of soldiers learning how to scan an area for radioactivity discover readings off the charts, the military brass calls in Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger, not exactly my idea of an action hero), working at the nearby Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth. Royston discovers that there’s something emerging from beneath the earth, and to borrow a line from The Thing (1982), “it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” There’s a lot of talk in X: The Unknown and a long delay until we see “the unknown,” but the film contains great atmosphere and pretty good effects, especially for the time.
Framed (1947) Richard Wallace (Essential Film Noir Collection 1, 1947-1957 Imprint box set)
I’d been waiting for years to see this one, and it did not disappoint. Glenn Ford plays Mike Lambert, a down-on-his-luck truck driver who finds himself looking for work in a small town where he meets Janis Carter and Barry Sullivan, both of whom seem to show a curious interest in him. The Alan K. Rode commentary on the Imprint (an Australian label) is terrific.
Weird Woman (1943) Reginald Le Borg (Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Mill Creek Blu-ray box set)
Okay, Weird Woman is not a good movie, but (1) it’s better than the Calling Dr. Death (1943), the first film in the Inner Sanctum box set, and (2) I had a great time, knowing it wasn’t going to be very good. Lon Chaney Jr. is in all of the six Inner Sanctum films, playing a different character each time. Here, Chaney plays a professor who returns from a trip to the South Seas with new wife Paula (Anne Gwynne), who refuses to put away her beliefs in voodoo and other supernatural elements. When weird things (including murders) begin to happen, Paula is the most likely suspect. Again, I was expecting nothing but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe you will be as well?
The Great Lie (1941) Edmund Goulding (Warner DVD)
Bette Davis plays against type as the good girl this time, opposite a venomous Mary Astor as temperamental concert pianist Sandra Kovak, who makes a startling discovery: Her marriage to aviator Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is not binding since the divorce from her first husband was never finalized. Feeling the attraction to his ex-girlfriend Maggie (Davis), Peter ties the knot with her. When Peter’s plane goes missing on a flight to Brazil, Sandra and Maggie duke it out over who’s going to raise Sandra’s unborn child. Total melodrama, but Davis and Astor are great together, and the film features a wonderful supporting cast including Lucile Watson, Hattie McDaniel, Jerome Cowan, and more.
Dr. No (1962) Terence Young (MGM Blu-ray) Rewatch, 3x
Research for an upcoming podcast celebrating the life and career of Sean Connery
Tol’able David (1921) Henry King (Kanopy)
David Kinemon (Richard Barthelmess) is the youngest in his family, yet eager to prove himself as a man. David’s life in a mountain village is easy-going, trying to impress a local girl named Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette), until a trio of dangerous criminals - the Hatburn brothers - arrive in the area. A film both innocent and uncompromising. Barthelmess is excellent. We’ll be discussing this film for one of our virtual library movie discussions in April.
Decasia (2002) Bill Morrison (Bill Morrison: Selected Films 1996-2014 Blu-ray, BFI Video, UK Region B)
Morrison’s film is an absolutely mesmerizing experience combining decaying silent films with a soundtrack by Michael Gordon. Gordon, by using detuned pianos and an orchestra never quite in phase with itself, creates an aural version of the decay pictured onscreen. It might seem these images are random, but Morrison has structured something of a narrative that can be interpreted several different ways, all of them powerful. This is one of the most amazing movie-watching experiences I had in 2020.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) Bill Morrison (Kanopy) Rewatch, 2x
After watching some of Morrison’s earlier work in preparation for having him as a guest for our library virtual movie discussion, I found I enjoyed Dawson City much more this time around (and I enjoyed it quite a bit during my initial watch). If you haven’t yet seen Dawson City: Frozen Time, I urge you to do so.
Grizzly Man (doc. 2005) Werner Herzog (Amazon Prime)
In the hands of anyone other than Werner Herzog, this would’ve come across as an examination of a well-intentioned but troubled man who may have had mental health issues. But thankfully this is a Herzog film, and he always exceeds audience expectations. Timothy Treadwell was an uncompromising grizzly bear fanatic and (in his mind) protector, but his reckless behavior with the bears ended up killing him. Was his death tragic or inevitable? The film’s soundtrack is by Richard Thompson.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977) Jim Henson (Lionsgate DVD) Rewatch, 3x
Based on the Russell Hoban children’s book, with songs by Paul Williams, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is a delightful tale, perfect for the times when you’re sick and tired of all the other Christmas specials you’ve seen over and over.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra (Paramount Blu-ray) Rewatch, 25x
I’ve seen this movie so many times that 25 is just a guess (probably a low one), but I’ve never lost it like I lost it watching the film this year, especially during the scene pictured above. I don’t know if it was the pandemic, getting older, or what. I unapologetically love this movie.
The Land Unknown (1957) Virgil W. Vogel (Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Universal DVD set)
And this one’s not so wonderful… An expedition is looking for the newly discovered warm waters of Antarctica, but they find prehistoric monsters and a whacked-out survivor of an expedition from ten years earlier. As part of the expedition team, Shirley Patterson gets hit on by every guy in the film (and most of the dinosaurs), and Henry Brandon as the survivor is on testosterone overload. The dinosaurs are all over the place, not geographically, but in terms of quality and believability. Some are guys in rubber suits, others are puppets, and we also have monitor lizards (blown up) going at it. The Land Unknown isn’t terrible. It could’ve been better and was originally planned to be better, but the budget reached its limits too quickly. Worth a look for sf fans, especially those who enjoy lost worlds pictures.
Flaming Star (1960) Don Siegel (Twilight Time Blu-ray)
I think most people who watch Flaming Star expect it to be a typical Elvis vehicle, which it is, but not in the way you might think. Flaming Star, like King Creole (1958) and a handful of his early films, proves that Elvis Presley could have had a shot at becoming a serious actor. Here, Elvis plays Pacer Burton, son of a Kiowa mother called Neddy (Delores del Rio) and a white father named Sam (John McIntire). Clint Burton (Steve Forrest), Pacer’s brother by his father’s previous marriage, is having a birthday party as the film opens, but the party doesn’t last long. The Kiowa tribe has a new chief who pressures Pacer to declare his allegiance: to his tribe or the white man. The film contains some questionable story elements, but the performances from Elvis, Forrest, del Rio, and McIntire are poignant and powerful.
She Played with Fire (aka Fortune is a Woman, 1957) Sidney Gilliat (Noir Archive Vol. 3: 1957-1960, Mill Creek Blu-ray set)
Director Sidney Gilliat has had his ups (Green for Danger, 1946) and his downs (Endless Night, 1971), but She Played with Fire lands somewhere in the middle. More mystery than noir, a man named Moreton (Dennis Price) claims a fire damaged several of his works of irreplaceable art. An insurance investigator named Branwell (Jack Hawkins) suspects something fishy, but unexpectedly meets Moreton’s wife Sarah (Arlene Dahl), Branwell’s ex-girlfriend. Things get a bit convoluted, and the ending lacks power, but Hawkins and Dahl are good.
A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge, 1951) Brian Desmond Hurst (YouTube) Rewatch, 2x
Still the best version of the Charles Dickens classic, featuring a wonderful performance by Alastair Sim. Yet please, please, please encourage your family and friends to watch other Alastair Sim movies as well.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) Henry Koster (Amazon Prime) Rewatch, 2x
I always find it interesting how many people forget this movie (or never knew about it in the first place) when it comes to holiday viewing. Praying for guidance (but mostly money) for a cathedral building project, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has his prayers answered by Dudley (Cary Grant), who claims to be an angel, but he’s spending an awful lot of time with Henry’s wife Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter (Karolyn Grimes, who will always be remembered as Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life). Put this one on your list for next December. Or watch it right now.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (TV 1971) Fiedler Cook (YouTube) Rewatch, 4x (?)
You can make fun of The Waltons TV series all you want, but I still love this movie. Patricia Neal rules.
The Unknown (1927) Tod Browning (Criterion Channel)
A circus performer who calls himself Alonzo the Armless Wonder (Lon Chaney) spends his time hurling knives with his feet at another performer, Nanon (Joan Crawford). Nanon has a thing about being touched by men’s hands, but that’s no problem for Alonzo, right? Ah, there’s mystery, horror, and romance here, directed by Tod Browning, who seems here to be warming up for his classic Freaks (1932). Thanks to my friend Michael for recommending this one.
Bosch (2014) created by Michael Connelly, developed by Eric Overmyer (Amazon Prime)
I don’t watch a lot of TV, and I put off watching this series for way too long, which was a big mistake. I’ve read all the Bosch books by Michael Connelly, and this adaptation does not disappoint in the least, interweaving storylines from three novels (The Concrete Blonde, City of Bones, and Echo Park) into one season. From what I’ve been told, the series only gets better.
Above Suspicion (1943) Richard Thorpe (Criterion Channel)
Espionage. Secret codes. Nazis. Passwords. Cryptic messages. Maps. More Nazis. Joan Crawford. Fred MacMurray. Conrad Veidt. Basil Rathbone. Fred MacMurray in lederhosen. It’s all there, and it’s all fun. Above Suspicion is not the best movie you’ll ever see, but it’s greatly entertaining. Crawford’s last contractual film at MGM. (Sorry I can't remember who recommended this one to me, but thank you!)
Strange Cargo (1943) Frank Borzage (Criterion Channel)
It’s refreshing to watch a movie, thinking it’s going to go in a certain direction, then have it surprise you in the best way possible by going somewhere unexpected. That’s just what happened with Strange Cargo, which starts with tough-as-nails criminal Verne (Clark Gable) escaping from a penal colony in Devil’s Island (French Guiana). Julie (Joan Crawford), a local entertainer (prostitute), blows the whistle on Verne, sending him back to prison. But that’s just the beginning. The supporting cast is stellar, including Peter Lorre, Ian Hunter, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, Eduardo Ciannelli, Frederick Worlock. Did I mention the Franz Waxman score? What a great way to finish the year! Many thanks to my friend Kevin J. for recommending this one.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog (BFI Blu-ray, UK Region B) Rewatch, 2x
Research for our January 8th Great Movies virtual library movie discussion.
That's going to do it for December and 2020. Thank you to all who continue to read these posts. It's greatly appreciated. I'd love to hear what you watched in this last month of 2020. Every have a Happy New Year, be safe, and I'll see you in 2021.