Vintage Movie Monday: Vampire Circus (1972)

These days, I mostly talk movies on The Film League podcast.  But some slip through the cracks or don’t get the time they deserve.  That’s the case with this gem of a Hammer film from 1972. It was directed by Robert Young, who is perhaps best known for directing the first series of Jeeves and Wooster, based on the P.G. Wodehouse novels and starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

But Vampire Circus is about as far from a comedy of manners as you can get. Instead, it revels in its Hammer horror style, packed full of lush but probably inaccurate set decorations, nudity, and lots of fake blood.

Set in a 19th century Austrian village named Shtetl (that’s Yiddish for town, or maybe it’s “Städtle,” German for “little town”), the film concerns the retribution taken on the villagers by a traveling circus of vampiric predators.  They’ve come in the middle of a plague quarantine, promising to entertain the residents with their carnival acts.  But the carnival turns into a rather more literal “farewell to the flesh” when the vampires begin preying on town children, using the blood to awaken the vampiric Count defeated by the townspeople 15 years earlier.

The circus proves too tempting a distraction for the quarantined town, who flock to see the show night after night.  They are astonished, but perhaps less surprised than they should be, at the strange and magical performances.  Caged animals transform into human dancers and acrobats, and a funhouse mirror becomes a deadly portal.

Soon the whole town is embroiled in the twin dramas of the mysterious murders and the suspicious performers.  The ensemble cast of this film is truly a joy to watch—despite minimal screen time for most of the actors, they convey rich and lived-in experiences.  Multiple small storylines play out amongst them, even as the carnage swells and takes over.

The town is saved, in the end, by a pure and devout teenaged couple who wield crosses against the unholy evil.  Dora defeats their dopplegangers, twin vampires who feel each other’s injuries, while Anton kills the revived Count.

Vampire Circus is streaming on Netflix right now, and I highly recommend it.  The movie is probably my new favorite Hammer film, as it successfully elevates the form above its too-campy elements and manages to elicit powerful sympathy for the large cast of characters.

Vintage Movie Monday: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

This saucy pre-Code comedy was originally set to be adapted from Katharine Brush’s novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  When he took the picture in too serious a direction, the studio asked Anita Loos to step in and rewrite the script.

In Loos’s hands, the film became a raunchy and fun tribute to the social-climbing red-head at its center, played by (the usually blonde) Jean Harlow.  While I haven’t checked the original book, I’m fairly certain Loos added in the humorous opening in which Lil Andrews (Harlow) wryly name-checks Loos’s popular novel from seven years earlier: “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

Lil is a girl with a mission: to seduce Bill Legendre, the wealthy son of her boss.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bill is two things: already married but also powerless in the face of Lil’s fiery sexuality.  The script hints fairly baldly that Bill and his icy blonde wife, Irene, don’t have sex.  When Lil points her lips or shockingly exposed  her garters at him, he’s violently overcome.

After a series of adulterous encounters discovered by Irene, she divorces him and is left sleeping with her adorable puppy.

Lonely in the wake of the divorce, Irene decides to try to reconcile with Bill, only to find that he has married Lil in a blisteringly fast ceremony.  The marriage is doomed, however, both by Irene’s continued presence in their lives and the social outcast status that the divorce and remarriage have caused for the new couple.

High society can’t accept Lil, whose increase in status has made her snobby but not proper or decent. Because this is pre-Code, the film has some serious fun portraying Lil’s incorrigibly sexual behavior with increasingly racy scenes of her disrobing.

After several more rounds of love and betrayal and a snazzy dance scene to Lil’s own theme song, Bill ruins her chances to remarry by exposing the affair she’s having with her lover’s French chauffer.  She attacks the once-again reconciled Bill and Irene, shooting off a gun and causing Bill to wreck his car and nearly die.

But that’s not the end of it!  In any other film, one might expect Lil to be punished for her actions; instead, she ends the film married to an even richer (though uglier) old dude while also continuing her affair with the Frenchman, now employed by her husband.

As TCM notes,

The movie, and Harlow, achieved another kind of notoriety as well. Guardians of public morals throughout the country were incensed not only by the film’s frank treatment of sexuality but even more by the fact that Lil, an irredeemably bad girl who selfishly wrecks the lives of everyone around her, doesn’t get any kind of comeuppance or learn her lesson by the end of the story. Rather, she ends up rich, happy and accepted by high society without ever having to pay for her sins. Because of this, Red-Headed Woman is often cited as one of the motion pictures that brought about more stringent censorship under the Production Code, ushering in an era of enforced “morality” and coy dodges around sex for decades to come.

In the absence of the 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes film (which has been lost), it’s fun to see Loos exercise her snappy wit and racy proto-feminist politics with yet another social climber who escapes punishment in the end.

Vintage Movie Monday: Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies is the story of two girls living in Depression-era New York who escape poverty by going on the stage and then becoming kept women.  How scandalous!  This pre-Code film opens with an all-out slap fight between its female leads (played by Marion Davies, who also produced the film, and Billie Dove in her last film role).  From there, it moves on to depict heavy drinking and child neglect as part of life in a poverty-stricken New York tenement.

For all the glitz and glamor of the stage, this is actually a fairly dark film about the situation of women during the Depression.  It seems a far cry dialogue-writer Anita Loos’s earlier works like the snappy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even the lavish silent film Intolerance.

As one character outright states: “This big gay life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?”

I do have to agree with Laura, who felt, “At 91 minutes the film does go on a bit too long, with Blondie and Lottie fighting and making up repeatedly, but it has a number of striking sequences, particularly in the early going.”

The scene that sparked my interest the most features a party performance of a song spoofing director Edmund Goulding’s other 1932 film, Grand Hotel.  “One look at that guy Barrymore and you’re out!”

Vintage Movie Monday: Intolerance (1916)

After working with D.W. Griffith on several smaller silent film projects, Anita Loos helped write some of the title cards for Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance.  She is often not credited for this work, which is a shame.

The film is considered one of the great classics of the silent era, due largely to its epic scope and unconventional plot structure:

The three-and-a-half hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines each separated by several centuries: (1) A contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption; (2) a Judean story: Christ’s mission and death; (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572; and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. (from Wikipedia)

The various plots have their own detailed visual styles, not only matching sets and costumes to the time period, but also utilizing color coding and themed title cards to help audiences tell them apart at a glance.  The Babylonian story, for example, has a yellowish cast and detailed title cards with historical footnotes.  The French story’s blueish title cards feature a fleur de lis motif.  The contemporary melodrama, on the other hand, has a more standard black and white look and simple title cards like the one below.

Loos worked on the titles for Intolerance, but it is impossible to know which ones she wrote.  Laura Frost hazards some educated guesses about which titles might have been Loos’s:

In most cases, we can only speculate which writer was responsible for which title, but the stylistic differences are suggestive. Loos was clear about her role. In her memoir, she recalls, “D. W. bade me put in titles even when unnecessary and add laughs wherever I found an opening. I found several” (GI, 103). Interspersed among the instructive and weighty inscriptions are lighter and more ironic captions that seem more reflective of the “Loos-style.” For example, in the scene in which The Dear One, who has jealously watched a woman’s undulating walk draw men’s attention on the street and decides to imitate her by tying her skirt into a hobble, a title dryly comments that “The new walk seems to bring results” as men flock to her ridiculous gait.

Intolerance is popping up a lot recently; the still above has appeared in both the video game L.A. Noire and this year’s big Oscar nominee, Hugo.  

It is by all counts a marvel of silent cinema, one that demands a huge attention investment from its viewers and rewards them in turn with a complicated intercut narrative structure and many gorgeous visual moments.

Loos worked Intolerance into her own later work by giving Lorelei, the protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story about her cameo in the film.  Fittingly, Lorelei is supposed to have played one of the vampish Babylonian maidens — frankly a perfect role for her buxom chorus girl character.  And given Lorelei’s later screen life as the perfectly-cast Marilyn Monroe, it is hard not to search those maidens’ faces for her half-lidded eyes and trademark pout.

Intolerance is now in the public domain; you can watch it for free or download it from the Internet Archive.  However, that version doesn’t include the color-coding of storylines, which I found really fascinating and helpful.  Netflix’s streaming version does, if you’d like to watch it like that.

Vintage Movie Monday: The Silent Films of Anita Loos (1912 – 1916)

The silent film has gotten a bit of a boost recently: The Artist, a modern silent “classic,” scooped up many BAFTA nominations, won big at the Golden Globes, and will probably fare pretty well at the Oscars too.  I haven’t seen it yet, but my thesis research into the career of Anita Loos has meant that I’ve recently spent time immersing myself in the art of silent cinema.

Loos wrote an incredible number of screenplays, treatments, and scenarios during the silent era, and continued working in the talkies both pre- and post-Hayes Code.  Many of these films are now lost, but several of them have luckily been preserved.  Even better, a handful are available to watch for free through the Internet Archive.

While these early silents aren’t the best demonstration of Loos’s vivid wit and style, they are a fascinating glimpse into the work of a young (very young) artist who is just getting started.

For a more scholarly take on Loos’s silent film writing work, I highly recommend Laura Frost’s article, “Blondes Have More Fun: Anita Loos and the Language of Silent Cinema.”


The New York Hat | 1912

The New York Hat was directed by D W Griffith for the Biograph Studio in 1912. It has many of Griffith’s stock players in it. You may spot Mae Marsh as a gossip or Lillian Gish as a customer in the store but the main roles are played by Lionel Barrymore as the pastor and Mary Pickford as he girl. The script was written by Anita Loos.

This 16-minute short film was Loos’s third screenplay and the very first to be produced.  She earned $25 for it.  It was filmed at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many silent films were produced in the early days of cinema.

Loos would go on to write title cards for Griffith’s Intolerance, a huge boost for her burgeoning career.

His Picture in the Papers | 1916

A young man can only get the woman he loves if he becomes famous, and manages to get his picture in the newspapers. He determines to let nothing stand in the way of his doing exactly that, and in the process winds up getting involved with a gang of criminals and a locomotive chase.

This hour-long silent film was written by Anita Loos (still quite early in her career) and directed by her future husband, John Emerson.  It starred Douglas Fairbanks.  Loos write five films for Fairbanks and made him quite a star.

Her witty writing style is on display here in the title cards, which play with ideas of language, reading, and thinking.  For example, a title card introduces Count Xxerkzsxxv, with a note reading, “To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.” Continue reading

Vintage Movie Monday: Lady in the Lake (1947)

I had this whole plan for a month of Christmas-themed Vintage Movie Monday posts.  And then finals happened.  But!  That doesn’t mean I can’t still tell you about the weirdest Christmas movie I’ve watched this year, Lady in the Lake.

It’s based on a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, so you know what that means: Christmas noir!  A terrific subsubgenre with, as far as I can tell, only one other entry, the superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

The film has a very strange experimental visual style, which is kind of off-putting at first.  It is told mostly in the filmic first person, as though the camera were Phillip Marlowe’s point of view.  The other actors address the camera directly, and at times, the actor playing Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) addresses the camera (himself) in the mirror.  It’s actually excellently done, but I wouldn’t want to watch a whole slew of films like this.  The studio really played up this aspect in the marketing, though, probably because it was so novel.

As these posters show, the marketing materials promised that “You” would solve a murder mystery with Robert Montgomery in the film!

I’m certain there’s plenty written (if not, there needs to be) about the viewer’s response to the direct gaze of the actors.  It might, interestingly, bring male and female viewers to the same level in some way, though of course women might also feel cognitive dissonance when Marlowe is finally shown in the mirror.

The story is a standard noir yarn: boy meets girl, boy gets mixed up in murder investigation, boy gets crap kicked out of him, boy outsmarts everyone in the end.  But in a neat reversal, the supposed femme fatale is actually the good girl who gets the boy in the end while the innocent lamb is the cold-blooded murderess.  It all takes place over Christmas, and fittingly for a holiday movie if oddly for a noir, there’s a happy ending.

All the actors are excellent, but Audrey Totter (above) is really something out of this world.  Her faces alone are worth watching for.

For some darker, more cynical but not totally depressing holiday film fare, I’d definitely suggest pairing this with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for a really fun double feature.

Vintage Movie Monday: Shall We Dance (1937)

I had a really hard time coming up with another movie to cover for the November making party.  Not a lot of films feature crafting that I could think of, especially not vintage ones.  But then I took a break from schoolwork to watch Fred and Ginger in Shall We Dance and was thrilled to notice that a very important plot point revolves around Ginger Rogers knitting.

Ginger Rogers knitting — that’s almost a great band name, definitely a great album name.

This film is not unique or special, really, in the realm of Fred and Ginger’s shared film output, but it is still just as much fun as you could hope.

See what I mean?

Vintage Movie Monday: The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited is a solid entry into the haunted house film subgenre.  It’s less scary than spooky, but the moody atmosphere and psychological mystery at its center make it a great Halloween watch.  I caught it on TCM this weekend, and I’m glad I did.  It reminded me of Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca, for several reasons, but I would actually say that this film is more gorgeously shot.

Though it’s an American film, the plot revolves around a brother and sister who move from London to the English seaside when they fall in love with a big old house.  Stella, the granddaughter of the house’s owner, initially tries to keep them from buying it, but they move in and befriend her.  Strange things start happening at the house, and Stella gets caught in the center of a battle between supernatural forces and her family and new friends.

According to Wikipedia,

The Uninvited was among the very first Hollywood feature films to portray a haunting as an authentic supernatural event. Previously, ghosts were often played for comedy (The Ghost Goes West, 1936; Topper, 1937) or revealed to be practical jokes (Blondie Has Servant Trouble, 1940) or subterfuge to obscure an illegal activity (The Cat and the Canary, 1939; Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, 1941).

The old house, filled with disembodied crying sounds, phantom perfume, and a wealth of untold family secrets, makes this one of the more truly Gothic films to come out of Hollywood.  It has a great deal in common with British Gothic novels like Wuthering Heights, perhaps because the film is based on Dorothy Macardle’s 1942 book, Uneasy Freehold.

The film was quite popular, and was nominated for ab Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography.  Its score also spawned a hit jazz song, “Stella by Starlight.”

Vintage Movie Monday: Stage Door (1937)

On a recent late-night TCM binge, I came across this 1937 gem starring Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn.  These are two of my favorite actresses, and I’d had no idea they had done a picture together.  What’s more, the film featured a slew of other notable faces, including Lucille Ball and Ann Miller, both at a very young age.

The premise of Stage Door is sheer delight: a gaggle of girls trying to make it on Broadway board together at the Footlights Club, where they tease, cheer, and agitate each other regularly.  Rogers plays Jean, a dancer with a quick wit and an extremely sharp tongue.  Hepburn is Terry, a wealthy newcomer determined to try her hand at acting.  Her money and manners keep her aloof from the other girls, though she grows to care greatly about them.  Terry spends the film scheming and maneuvering to ensure the girls are protected in various ways, but never takes credit for herself.

The end features a surprise, melodramatic twist that I don’t want to spoil here.  Suffice to say, after an hour and a half of Rogers and Hepburn trading quips, I was really thrown off by the final, emotional moments of the film.  Still, the performances make this odd comedy/drama worth seeing.  Hepburn is good, but Rogers is stunning — possibly quicker than she’s ever been.

What’s more, the ensemble of female actors is largely freed from the banal weight of romances and male-dominated scenes.  While each girl has her own detailed backstory, many of which include suitors, they’re all given free reign to play and be merry in the boarding house.  It’s a genuine pleasure to see so many talented actresses goof off together as well as care for each other in the more serious moments.

Has Hollywood ever made a more dedicated paean to female friendship?  If so, I’ve not yet encountered it.