What I Watched in February 2021
February provided three terrific films celebrating Black History Month, two TV series, three Inner Sanctum movies, a revisit of the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater, and much more. Let’s get started:
Three on a Match (1932) Mervyn LeRoy (Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 2 DVD set)
I recently picked up Ann Dvorak’s biography, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice. I knew very little about Dvorak, but since many of my friends praised the book (and since it was 75% off the retail price during a University Press of Kentucky sale), I bought it and dived in. Knowing that I hadn’t seen a Dvorak movie in a long time, I decided to watch Three on a Match, which chronicles the lives of three young women who for a time all went to the same public school: Vivian (Dvorak, right), Mary (Joan Blondell, center), and Ruth (Bette Davis, left). Although Vivian should be the happiest of the three, marrying a rich, prosperous man, she’s the least satisfied. Her poor life choices cause her friends to help her, but her relationship with a local mobster (Lyle Talbot) makes her life - and the life of her young son - hellish. This pre-Code crime picture is still hard-hitting and Dvorak is wonderful in it. The film also features (briefly) Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and Edward Arnold.
Jonny Quest (TV, 1964-65) created by Doug Wildey (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
I have fond memories of the original Jonny Quest TV show, but discovered while working my way through this set that I had completely missed two episodes from my misspent youth. I also discovered that my beloved childhood memories did not include inconsistency of artists (particularly the variation in the way characters are drawn), racial stereotypes, and some really goofy plots. The best episodes are the ones that remain in my memories, “The Invisible Monster,” “The Robot Spy,” “The House of Seven Gargoyles,” “Turu the Terrible,” and “The Curse of Anubis.”
The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) Dick Richards (Signal One Blu-ray, UK)
I plan to write a full review of this unconventional coming-of-age western featuring Gary Grimes (in only his second film) and a whole slew of great character actors including Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, Billy Green Bush, Geoffrey Lewis, Charles Martin Smith, Hal Needham, Royal Dano, and more. Look for a full review soon.
The Frozen Ghost (1945) Harold Young (Inner Sanctum Mysteries Blu-ray set, Mill Creek)
In this fourth installment of the Inner Sanctum series, Lon Chaney Jr. plays Alex Gregor, better known by his stage name, Gregor the Great. Gregor and his fiancé Maura (Evelyn Ankers) have a nifty stage act: Gregor hypnotizes Maura, who then is able to reveal very specific information concerning thoughts from members of the audience. When a drunken skeptic (Arthur Hohl) heckles Gregor and challenges the act, Gregor wishes him dead. Under hypnosis, the boozer dies onstage. Stricken with guilt, Gregor decides to abandon the biz and Maura, taking a job suggested by his manager (Milburn Stone): working as a lecturer in Mme Valerie Monet’s (Tala Birell) wax museum. The set-up is great, and the execution (no pun intended) isn’t bad, but the film’s title is a real misnomer. The Frozen Ghost is neither the best nor the worst in this series.
The Farmer’s Wife (1928) Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber)
After a long absence (over six months), I’m finally back with the seventh film in my Alfred Hitchcock Project, The Farmer’s Wife. You can read my full review here.
A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) Krzysztof Zanussi (Kanopy)
It’s a crime this film isn’t watched and discussed more than it is. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and Pasinetti Awards. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies list. I discuss it in more detail here.
Escape in the Fog (1945) Budd Boetticher (Columbia Noir #1 Blu-ray box set, Indicator, UK) Rewatch, 2x
To be further explored in an upcoming review of the entire Columbia Noir #1 box set.
I Called Him Morgan (doc. 2016) Kasper Collin (Netflix)
I’ve long been a fan of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, but knew nothing of his story until I watched this powerful documentary, loaded with music and interviews with the musicians who played with Morgan.
Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (1972) Kenji Misumi (Criterion Channel)
This film is nuts. A samurai movie with a funky ‘70s soundtrack and some unique methods of interrogation… This first film in a trilogy won’t be for everyone (certainly not for kids!), but I’m on board for the next two movies in the series. Thanks to my friend Colin for recommending it.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) George C. Wolfe (Netflix)
This Netflix film is based on August Wilson’s play about a 1927 recording session with blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, including an arrogant young cornet played named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). The production values, costumes, and performances are fantastic. Man, do I miss Boseman…
The Strange World of Gurney Slade (TV, 1960) Anthony Newley, Alan Tarrant (Network Blu-ray, UK)
This six-part British TV comedy series is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and was certainly unlike anything else on television at the time on either side of the pond. Anthony Newley plays Gurney Slade, a character on a sit-com who unexpectedly walks off the set and begins a weird odyssey. Is Gurney’s journey an alternate reality? A fantasy? Madness? Gurney talks to dogs and cows. They talk back. A woman in an advertising poster comes to life. Each episode is wacky enough, but just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Gurney throws you for a loop. In some ways you can think of Gurney Slade as a forerunner to the TV show The Prisoner (1967), although they’re very different series. The three-disc Blu-ray set from Network also includes three episodes from the variety show Saturday Spectacular, which feature Newley’s first attempts to create the character of Gurney Slade. Network has also included a third disc, the British noir The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), starring Newley.
Champagne (1928) Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber)
Number 8 on my chronological journey through Hitchcock’s feature films.
The Professor and the Madman (2019) Farhad Safinia (Netflix)
Based on Simon Winchester’s nonfiction book whose full title reads, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, the 2019 film is a compelling adaptation. Tasked with overseeing the project of compiling entries for the OED, Oxford professor James Murray (a heavily-bearded Mel Gibson) struggles with the enormity of the project. Even worse, not all the members of the OED oversight committee are giving Murray their full (or sometimes partial) support. Yet when Dr. William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) - imprisoned for murdering a man he thought was trying to kill him - begins sending Murray letters containing multiple word origins and definitions, Murray believes his troubles are over. Murray only has to hide the fact that large portions of the OED have been furnished by a murderer who is also probably insane. I have no doubt the stars of this film and their baggage have kept audiences away from this one, but they should seek out the film for the film’s sake.
The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis (Columbia Noir #1 Blu-ray box set, Indicator, UK) Rewatch, 2x
Another noir to be further explored in an upcoming review of the entire Columbia Noir #1 box set.
Five Came Back (2017) Laurent Bouzereau (Netflix)
If you haven’t read the Mark Harris book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014), you’ll want to do so after watching this excellent film. Even at three hours, the documentary can’t tell the full story, yet it’s quite impressive. We hear the stories of what brought these five successful film directors - John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra - into the depths and darkness of World War II, but we also see how the war changed these men as they documented the war. Essential viewing (and reading).
Strange Confession (1945) John Hoffman (Inner Sanctum Mysteries Blu-ray set, Mill Creek)
The fifth of six Inner Sanctum movies introduces us to Jeff Carter (Lon Chaney Jr.), a promising scientist working on a cure for influenza while employed by a corrupt boss named Roger Graham (J. Carrol Naish, who else?). Carter comes up with an untested vaccine which Graham releases while Carter is abroad doing research. Hmmm…. pushing through vaccines before they’re ready… I’m not trying to stir up any battles here, but this low-budget thriller does make you think. Strange Confession also includes bit parts featuring Lloyd Bridges, Milburn Stone, Mary Gordon, Ian Wolfe, and others.
Puzzlehead (2005) James Bai (DVD)
Puzzlehead is a modern-day Frankenstein story taking place in an undisclosed city in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic setting. Probably due to the film’s low budget, the story contains very few characters or even supporting players, which is mostly okay. The first half of this film has a very nice look and feel, and although it moves very slowly, is still engaging and interesting. The last 20 minutes, however, seem to last for hours. Totally worth the $3 I spent on it at the used bookstore.
Riff-Raff (1991) Ken Loach (Twilight Time Blu-ray)
Ostensibly a film about a Glasgow construction worker (Robert Carlyle) falling for an Irish woman (Emer McCourt), Loach’s film is really an examination of working class Londoners.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) David Hand (Disney Blu-ray) Rewatch, 2x
My thoughts on this, the first movie I ever saw in a theater, are covered in my recent “Growing Up with Movies” post.
Viy (1967) Konstantin Yershov, Georgi Kropachyov (Tubi)
Based on the story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol, this Russian folktale/horror film still impresses after more than 50 years. In the 19th century, a young seminary student finds himself the cause of a young woman’s death. The girl’s father promises the student a reward if he will stand vigil and pray for her soul for three consecutive nights, otherwise his punishment will be great. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s worth the wait, especially since much of the lead-up to those three nights is somewhat glacial, yet often humorous. In many ways, this movie reminded me of The Fearless Vampire Killers (also released in 1967). Severin Films released a Blu-ray of Viy in 2019, and Eureka has a Region B limited edition (which also includes the 1990 film A Holy Place) coming next month.
Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) Edgar G. Ulmer (Amazon Prime)
I can't help but think this movie would've been better if Edgar G. Ulmer had been able to put more money behind it, not so much for the special effects (although that would've helped, especially with some correctly-applied bald caps), but for the script. This time travel adventure is too talky and uninteresting for most of its running time. I can't say for certain, but Beyond the Time Barrier must have been the influence for an episode from the original Star Trek series, "Tomorrow is Yesterday," which is miles beyond this.
One Night in Miami (2020) Regina King (Amazon Prime)
Much like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami focuses largely on one narrow moment in time, the night of February 25, 1964, when Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing title. Yet after the fight, the real fireworks begin between Clay, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), all of whom are facing crucial decisions in their careers and lives. Absolutely tremendous performances. Don’t miss it.
Pillow of Death (1945) Wallace Fox (Inner Sanctum Mysteries Blu-ray set, Mill Creek)
Pillow of Death seems like it could be the first of a series of sleep-related mayhem movies. Maybe next should be Pajamas of Death or Nightlight of Death. (If anyone takes that idea and runs with it, just remember to give me a story credit, okay?) Pillow of Death closes out the Inner Sanctum movie series without the face in the crystal ball appearing in all the other films, which does not bode well for what follows. Yet the disembodied crystal-ball head seems the perfect introduction for a movie about a medium (J. Edward Bromberg) seeking to contact the dead wife of attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney Jr.). The medium, Julian Julian (I kid you not), is eager to prove that Fletcher killed his wife in order to marry his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce). Besides the skeptical Sam Kincaid (George Cleveland), Donna’s relatives Amelia (Rosalind Ivan) and Belle (Clara Blandick) are full-on seance fanatics, believing every word Julian Julian says. Soon the bodies pile up, and with each body, the suspicion points to Fletcher.
Pillow of Death goes out of its way to provide comic relief, and in doing so, gives Chaney his shortest screen time of the six-film series. While still moderately enjoyable, Pillow of Death is a disappointing way to end an otherwise fun low-budget series. You can pick up the collection in a Region A set from Mill Creek or a Region B set from Eurkea. For a comparison, read the DVD Beaver review.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014) Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane (Amazon Prime), Rewatch, 2x
My thoughts on revisiting the film here.
Jungle (2017) Greg McLean (Amazon Prime)
Daniel Radcliffe and his friends discover an off-the-map tour guide who promises a grand adventure in the Bolivian jungle. Instead, he delivers a nightmare. This adventure needed a stronger script and more believable character development (or maybe a spell and a magic wand), but if you’re looking for a jungle adventure, I guess you could do worse.
Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks (Kanopy) Rewatch, 2x
Research for our Great Movies virtual movie discussion, which you can still sign up for! We’ve got a handful of seats left, and when those fill up, we have a waiting list.
That’s going to do it for February. Please let me know what you watched in February, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thanks for reading!