All posts by Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is the director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival (which can be downloaded from DownloadHorror.com here), and the feature W the Movie. He writes the column "Alfred Eaker's Fringe Cinema" for this site, covering the world of underground film, as well as regularly contributing essays on other subjects.

DARK SHADOWS (2012): A SECOND OPINION

See also James Mannan’s review of Dark Shadows.

Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continues the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past sixteen years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as some kind of “dark” auteur. Rather, his is a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka projected far more interior disturbance than Johnny Depp‘s silicone interpretation. In Burton’s Alice Lewis Carroll’s twitchy surrealism gave way to a Disney-paced narrative with yet another cartoon pseudo performance by Depp at its center.

Many critics harp on Burton’s narrative shortcomings. The films of Luis Buñuel refute the lie that three-dimensional characterizations are absolutely wedded to orthodox narratives. Burton’s early films evoked a strikingly fresh milieu with characters who, on the surface, seemed to be flying the freak flag high. But, Burton’s initial cannon of freaks really weren’t so different than the rest of us. If Pee Wee Herman, Adam, Barbara, Lydia and Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle, Edward Scissorhands, Kim, and Peg, along with Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were, perhaps, not immediate family, then they were most certainly extended family or close friends with whom we felt affinity, kinship, and admiration.

Then, something happened. Burton lost his mojo, and Depp followed suit in an even more pronounced, blatantly obvious way. At one point, Depp promised to be the new Brando, offering a fresh alternative to the plasticity of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Whoever would have guessed Continue reading DARK SHADOWS (2012): A SECOND OPINION

COMMON LAW WIFE (1963)

Common Law Wife (1963) is a hoot, as most period exploitation films are. This film, directed by the infamous schlockmeister Larry Buchanan and Eric Sayers, gets a lot of mileage out of the white trash melodrama genre.

Nasty old oil miser Uncle (love the name) Shugfoot Rainey (George Edgley) is bored with his worn out, tired-looking, live-in waitress girlfriend Linda (Anne MacAdams). Still, Linda is no pushover and proves it when she refuses to flinch while that mean old Uncle Shug throws darts at her head. But, after five years, Uncle Shug wants new tail, which he plans to get through his niece (!) Baby Doll (Lacey Kelly). Baby Doll is built like a French brick house and Linda, feeling like yesterday’s washrag, ain’t havin’ none o’ that!

Still from Common Law Wife (1963)Baby Doll, fresh from her job as a New Orleans stripper, is plenty willing to put out for some of her uncle’s assets, but she meets a road block in the rejected Linda. That heifer Linda has went and gotten herself a lawyer! Linda’s found out that she don’t haveta go nowhere, cause according to the law, she’s a… COMMON LAW WIFE! What is Shugfoot gonna do? “She’s lived with ya for five years, Shugfoot! That makes her your common law life according to the law!” “Well, gosh darn it, then change the law!” “You can’t change the law Shugfoot, no matter how much money ya got!”

Baby Doll has a past in her uncle’s town. Among her conquests she used and abused was the Sheriff. Now, Baby Doll, thwarted by Linda, plans to get her hooks into Uncle Shug and bust up the Sheriff’s marriage in the process.

Uncle Shug is jealous of the Sheriff. The sheriff’s wife and Linda are jealous of Baby Doll, the local boys can’t keep their eyes of the walking brick house, and when stinky old Uncle Shug finally croaks, you can bet hell hath no fury like women scorned! Cue flying fur!

Baby Doll goes a skinny dippin’, Baby Doll drives the Sheriff crazy, Baby Doll gets chased through the swamp by a potbellied moonshiner! Baby Doll doesn’t know it, but Linda’s now a pistol packin’ mama! The downbeat, brutal ending, enhanced by gritty camerawork, is icing on this sleaze-o-rama cake.

Both Sinister Cinema and Something Weird Video have competing dvd releases of Common Law Wife. Something Weird pairs the film with Jennie:Wife Child (1968) which is another buxom tart/old redneck man exploitation flick with a skinny dipping scene and a ultra hip trash score. Another “bonus” is Moonshine Love (1970) , which is essentially a soft core, tiresome nudie about a naked babe (?) and a carrot. Sinister Cinema’s version has equally good mastering, but comes with no bonuses. However, it was once available in that company’s priceless Drive-In Double Features, which are returning after a bit of a hiatus. A third DVD release is on the inexpensive and low-grade transfer label Alpha Video. Alpha pairs Wife with the equally indispensable Shanty Tramp (1967). Regardless which DVD version you choose, Common Law Wife is best enjoyed with a lot of company and plenty of cheap beer.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

Gold Diggers Of 1933 is ‘s masterwork, assisted in no small way by the astute direction of , who had previously directed a number of stark, socially conscious films, such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Like Berkeley, Leroy’s best work was at Warner Bothers and, like Berkeley, MGM would buy his contract and essentially neuter him.

This is the second of the Warners/Berkeley backstage 1933 musicals, beginning with 42nd Street and concluding with Footlight Parade. Gold Diggers is a mix of harsh realism and opulent fantasy, more so than any other musical from the Great Depression.  It jump starts in high gear fantasy mode with , dressed only in a skimpy outfit made of silver dollars (with one coin strategically placed over her crotch), singing “We’re in the money.” Rogers’ handling of the lyrics morphs into a glossolalia-styled Pig Latin aria that seems like it would be more at home in a Buñuel movie than a Hollywood musical. Behind her, a chorus of babes holding up undulating coins sings “let’s spend it, send it rolling along.” This is Berkeley’s phantasmagoric “F_ you!” to the Depression. And how would you climax such an opening? With a crash, as debt collectors break up the number, taking with them every prop, every stitch of clothing and everything, leaving only a crumb, a crumb even too small for a mouse.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)Next we meet up with a foursome of Depression-era women. And these are determined women, bonding together to make it through a man’s world in hard times.  is at her innocent best.  is the wide awake, street-smart wisecracker. Aline MacMahon is the shrewd, conniving skeptic, and Rogers (who is a supporting character here) personifies the word “gold digger.” Although Rogers part is brief, she commands attention, especially in the opening scene, so much so that it is abundantly clear how and why she rose above her co-stars. Rogers could do Continue reading GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

DAMES (1934)

 co-directed Dames (1934) with ho-hum stock director Ray Enright, and that may be one reason why it is among the most uneven of Berkeley’s films. The plot is threadbare. Oddball moral majority-type millionaire is planning on bequeathing ten million dollars to his cousin Zazu Pitts (of 1924’s  infamous Greed) and her husband . That is, on one condition—that he finds them to be “morally acceptable” (i.e., no smoking, drinking, or mixing up with show-biz types, especially those that do shows with those immoral dames!)

Of course, there has to be a fly in the ointment, and here it is . Powell’s tenor persona wears thin quickly. He is such an all-smiles poster boy that one wonders what in the world that constipated Herbert might have found objectionable in him. A little background info here on Powell: the actor realized the limits of the screen persona that he had been thrust into. He waited out his youth and when he was too old to be prancing  on-screen he shrewdly reinvented himself as a hard-boiled forty something private eye in film noir. Here, he is the fellar of , daughter of Zazu and Guy. Dick wants to put on a show and gets help from the eternally underrated (who became Mrs. Powell two years later).

In direct contrast to the virginal Keeler, Blondell is the much more interesting, wise-cracking working girl who manages to get Guy Kibbee into a compromising situation. She uses that to her advantage and blackmails Guy into financing Dick’s Broadway production. Naturally, it will all work out.

Plot-wise, that’s about all one needs to know. Unfortunately, the film does not spin the plot quite that fast and it takes some time before we get to Berkeley’s numbers, but once we do, most is forgiven.

Blondell is Warren and Dubin’s “Girl At The Ironing Board” and, on the surface, the song seems a bit subdued. But, the discerning eye will notice that not only is she singing to the fellas’ shirts on the clothes line, but the shirts are singing back. This number, set at the the turn of the century, is eyelash batting cynicism that only Blondell could have done justice to (with Keeler, the piece would have fallen flat). Blondell is a good sport even when one of the undie shirts gets a sleeve-full of her tush. Continue reading DAMES (1934)

FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933) benefits greatly from the presence of actors James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Wisely, the film omits the coy indulgences of  regulars and , relegating them to the sidelines and musical numbers. Directed by  and choreographed by Berkeley, the film echoes Cagney’s rapid-fire delivery. It is often ranked as Berkeley’s best overall film.

The early 1930s were an era in which musicals and westerns pretty much ruled the roost, as far as quantity goes. As far as quality, with so many being produced, the bulk of Hollywood’s musicals, like their westerns, were wretched. MGM had a bigger reputation for musicals, but their Thirties’ output was predominantly tame fluff, and few have withstood the test of time. The grittier Warner Brothers productions, somewhat predictably, did it better, in no small part due to Busby Berkeley.

This is another “puttin’ on the show” extravaganza.  The advent of sound has put an end to silent films in the midst of the Depression. Producer Cagney feels compelled to keep his crew fed and working, so he racks his brain for ideas. He arrives at the concept of “musical prologues” to introduce talkies. Cagney is a Berkeley-like character who has to contend with a scheming ex-wife, a back-stabbing fellow producer (Guy Kibbee), and a planted temptress mole (the quite good Claire Dodd). This cast of characters serve as much needed antagonists for the hyper-intense Cagney to bounce off of.

Still from Footlight Parade (1933)Joan Blondell perfectly parallels Cagney. She is his snappy secretary of substance who secretly loves him. She is no push-over, and, displaying as much energy as her boss, she  exposes his crooked partner, saves him from the gold-digging Dodd, and  serves as his sounding board. Blondell damn near steals the whole film from Cagney, and that’s no easy feat. Her tough, no-nonsense humor gets the better of Dodd, and she sends her rival packing with a swift kick to the daily duties: “as long as there is a sidewalk, you’ll have a job!”  We’re almost as miffed as she is with Cagney for not Continue reading FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)

42ND STREET (1933)

42nd Street is the film that really made choreographer Busy Berkeley a star; and that, in itself, is telling. Although directed by Lloyd Bacon (a 1930’s version of a Ron Howard-type assembly line director), it was Berkeley who rightfully grabbed the honors.

The musical, it seemed, had already run its course when Warner Brothers released 42nd Street. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) had been the ground-breaker, ushering in the advent of sound. But, in the six short years between The Jazz Singer and 42nd Street, the genre had already grown stale. Warner, on the verge of bankruptcy, took a huge gamble (studios used to do that) and brought in the innovative Berkeley, teamed him with the competent helmsman Bacon, an unknown (fresh) cast, and the expert songwriting team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren (who make a cameo in the film).

The plot is hackneyed, and would set the pattern for what constitutes a “Berkeley” film. It’s a backstage story about the struggles of a Broadway musical production (who really thought 1980’s Fame had an ounce of originality?) with an overly intense, self-destructive director (Warner Baxter, an archetype later taken to the extreme in Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Joe Gideon in 1979’s All That Jazz) and an understudy (Ruby Keeler) who, at the last moment, fills in for the injured star (Bebe Daniels) and becomes a star herself.

Still from 42nd Street (1933)Of far more interest, plot-wise, is the nuanced filler material. Virginal Keeler and her leading fellar, golly-gee-wiz swell guy Dick Powell have limited charm and register as flat and clunky next to the wisecracking chorus girl  (already projecting star quality) and the dirty old rich lecher Guy Kibbee. This is the Depression era and there is talk aplenty about the desperate struggle for money and success, which gives the film moments of sweaty substance. Star Daniels, no fluff actress, is clearly an occupant of Kibbee’s casting couch, even if she is in love with George Continue reading 42ND STREET (1933)

TOP HAT (1935)

The Hollywood musical has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. Contemporary audiences, corn-fed on laser battles with green aliens and tights-wearing, invulnerable superheroes who defy gravity, somehow find the idea of a film in which actors suddenly burst into song as “intolerably unrealistic!”

The genre’s peak era began at the dawn of sound, in the early 1930s, with Busby Berkeley at Warners and RKO’a teaming of the inimitable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The musical climaxed twenty later, in the 1950s, with the “arty” musicals of Gene Kelly, Vincent Minelli, and Stanley Donan.

Mark Sandrich directed a number of the RKO musicals with Astaire and Rogers. His first teaming with them was The Gay Divorcee (1934). This was followed by Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938). Later, he directed Astaire with Bing Crosby in 1924’s Holiday Inn (which some people still confuse with the inferior 1954 remake, White Christmas) and Blue Skies (1946).

Still from Top Hat (1935)Top Hat is Astaire and Rogers’ at their near-peak, although some revisionists have argued that honor should actually go to the George Stevens directed Swing Time (1936). I’m not siding with the Swing Time revisionists, because I  have my own revisionist opinion, which I will cover down a later RKO road. Top Hat is a near-perfect film from Hollywood’s near-perfect decade, and it’s pure class, catapulting Depression-era man from his oppressive environment for 101 minutes of “Heaven, I’m in heaven” (well almost 101 minutes. More on that later). Astaire’s choreography blends seamlessly with the musical direction of the great composer Max Continue reading TOP HAT (1935)