Wednesday, April 27, 2011

classic castaways

There's an oft repeated and varied tale of two friends who go to a video store. When passing the classics section one laments that they "just don't make em' like they used to." The other extends his arm in a grand gesture and counters, "these are the ones that have survived." I don't recall where I first heard it, or whether the story is even true, but the comment is justified. It wasn't just Citizen Kanes and Taylor's and Paine's, and for every heavy hitter double the flops. According to Robert Sklar a 1930s survey distributed to screenwriters allowing them to comment on their industry and the product it produced resulted in a whopping three fourths negative response.

But there's a flip to the coin. A haven commonly referred to as films so bad they're kind of good. Which for good or ill I'm willing to admit to. This post will celebrate just a few of my favorite train wrecks.

Thirteen Women (RKO Radio Pictures, 1932)

A year before RKO would make King Kong there was this monstrosity. In a far cry from Nora Charles famous 'good wife' Myrna Loy plays a half caste maniac who decides to destroy her former classmates, including Irene Dunne, for bullying her in the past. This could be a fantastic comment on racism and the ways minorities have been marginalized in society. But what tack does this film take? To give Myrna the power to hypnotize people with nothing more than her makeup lathered artificially slanted eyes. And I can't look away either, especially when Myrna decides the way to destroy Dunne is to plant an explosive in her son's bouncy ball (Halloween candy's not the only reason to fear strangers, kids!). I can't decide if this film is a drama, a poor stab at comedy, or a more personal brand of horror film that makes you want to turn your own skin inside out.

The best part? It actually ends in a train wreck.

Parachute Jumper (Warner Brothers, 1933)

While only released a month before 42nd Street the two do not sit side by side in public memory. I honestly have no recollection of the plot of this one and it isn't memorable enough to warrant the five seconds it would take to read a plot synopsis on imbd. The reasons this one is so great? Bette Davis as a sassy southern belle with an accent to match. Jezebel pre-code style. Also fun for the le gasp! People had middle fingers in the 1930s and knew how to use them! moments.

Casino Royale (MGM, 1966)

Before Daniel Craig there was David Niven as Bond. Both he and this film are not placed in the great pantheon of 007 films for good reason as the film acts as an anthropological study in where careers go to die (hey it's work, right?). Yet there are hidden, can't look away style gems. I will provide three magical screen caps to demonstrate. When I snap my fingers again you will immediately view this film.

I give you

David Niven in an alpine hat.

Woody Allen in a sombrero with a David Niven punching bag (sans Alpine hat)

Drugged Deborah Kerr dancing a jig.

And voila!

Hush... Hush Sweet Charlotte
(2oth Century Fox, 1964)

Something of a camp classic, though not as well known as its cousin Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? also starring Bette Davis as a ham fisted shrill psychopath. That part makes me sad, honestly, and I don't find much fun in it. The reason to watch this film?

Olivia DeHavilland as a stone cold... we'll say fox.

For someone most remembered as sweet and syrupy (and I'd gladly order a Melanie Hamilton special any day) this one remains great fun to see her Cruella Deville side. Dalmation coats would suit her splendidly.

Beloved Infidel (20th Century Fox, 1959)

Basically Baywatch porn made for romantics instead of 15 year old boys. Meaning, of course, that I love it. Gregory Peck as F. Scott Fitzgerald: the drunken years (or was that every year?). Deborah Kerr as Sheilah Graham, famous gossip columnist. Solid performances, though many question Peck's casting. Honestly I'm too busy drooling to really care. Both have seen better days. Special points in this one to costume design and art direction, which are stunning to look at though don't make up for a cotton candy script. A film best described by exclamation points. Love in the sand! Day trips to Tijuana! Who could ask for anything more.

Moral of this slightly embarrassing story? They still don't make em' like they used to. And maybe, in some ways, that's a good thing.


  1. "The best part? It actually ends in a train wreck."

    I need to see this movie.

    Oh my goodness! This post made me laugh so hard! I ADORE horribly made classic films! Hahahah

  2. Millie you must! It's a wonderful ball of awful. Or an awful ball of wonderful. I'm really not sure but either way you'll transition so fast from disbelief to amusement to horror I guarantee whiplash.

  3. Meredith! This post rocks. I haven't seen any of these films but I think I have to restructure my whole to-watch list around them, especially Casino Royale (drugged Deb Kerr dancing a jig!) and Beloved Infidel (Gregory Peck/Fitzgerald/Drunkenness!). And I can't imagine Olivia as a stone cold anything so Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte seems like a must. I've never seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane either, despite hearing from a dozen people that I have to. It scares the heck out of me just hearing about it!

  4. Casee-thanks girl! hopefully you won't be disappointed. ;) And I was seriously AMAZED when I first watched Olivia D in it. Shocking and shockingly good at it. You probably should be terrified to watch Baby Jane. haha.

  5. You are a saint sent to me from movie heaven.. I was just tweeting/obsessively asking for movie recommendations the other night.

    Casino Royale? SOLD.

  6. Amber-can I quote that on my tombstone? will give credit. ;) glad I was able to help! And I hope you enjoy the ridiculosity that is Casino Royale. I have one friend who has countered that it's just painful, not painfully good, but the cameos alone are worth it. One of those movies which you think can't be topped with any more layers of cheese and then BAM there comes smoked gouda.

  7. LOVE your commentary on Thirteen Women you hit the film right on the nose especially the ending. as bad as the film was i enjoyed it, i think i liked it mostly because Myrna Loy was in a bad ass pre-Nora Charles role.
    if anyone is looking to watch Thirteen Women it is currently available to view on youtube

  8. Bad girl Myrna is seriously the best. And thanks for the heads up! I oft forget the glory that is youtube for finding hidden gems.

    Also thanks for the follow!

  9. oh my god i have like over 100 movies saved that are on youtube!!! it's insane!! i have found silent Myrna Loy movies even silent Norma Shearer movies. seriously just about every old movie you can think of is on there.

  10. oh my goodness! absolutely need to be more attentive to it then.

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