Tag Archives: 1951

CAPSULE: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

DIRECTED BY: Lou Breslow

FEATURING: , Joyce Holden, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake

PLOT: A dog is murdered for his vast fortune, then reincarnated as a human in order to solve the crime and protect his former caretaker.

Still from You Never Can Tell (1951)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Proving that high concept is not a recent phenomenon, You Never Can Tell is amiable and lighthearted, barely dipping its toe into the stranger implications of its premise. It’s perfectly pleasant.

COMMENTS: Deciding whether a movie is weird is complicated by the inescapable truth that weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. After you’ve watched enough movies with really strange storytelling and quizzical imagery, it can be easy to forget the simple charms of the unanticipated left turn. It occurred to me while watching You Never Can Tell that, while I was hardened to the oddball premise of a dog in human form, contemporary audiences must have been rendered speechless by the introduction of an animal purgatory lorded over by a lion and populated by a veritable peaceable kingdom. For most readers here, this is a minor obstacle to overcome, but even today, there are certainly audiences for whom it is a bridge too far.

The story of King the German shepherd cum Rex Shepard, Private Detective is built on a quirky idea, but once you get past the supernatural premise, you’re left with a pretty square whodunit. In fact, the villain is identified for us early on, putting a lot of pressure on our interest in King’s voyages through the human world to carry the film. That means you have to really have to be committed to the quest of Dick Powell to bring his own killer to justice, and between his laid-back performance and the script’s cavalier attitude toward its own plotting, he really doesn’t pull it off. In fact, You Never Can Tell is an interesting blip in Powell’s remarkably diverse filmography, running the gamut from the song-and-dance man of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 to a hard-bitten private eye in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered. (To say nothing of his eventual gig directing the notorious cancer vector The Conqueror). Powell’s turn as private eye pup plays his tougher image for laughs, but other than a propensity for growling and a fondness for kibble, there’s not much to the performance. It’s light, wisely underplayed, but pretty straight and narrow.

If Powell doesn’t make the most of his role, co-star Joyce Holden absolutely does and then some. As Golden Harvest, a racehorse accompanying King as the detective’s confidential secretary, she gets to have all the fun he can’t. With her on-the-nose attire, inch-thick Kentucky accent, and propensity for horse metaphor and picking winners at the track, she is exactly the freewheeling comic relief the movie wants her to be. In fact, her antics hint at a completely different movie than the one that is developing as Rex tracks down his murderer. In that storyline, his pining for his old four-legged life (at one point, he literally steps over his own grave) is matched by the bittersweet longings of his former caretaker, Ellen. The mix of wacky hijinks and earnest grief is at least as weird as any of the rules of the animal kingdom’s afterlife.

Much of the stranger aspects of the premise are left unexplored, or even deliberately sidestepped, such as the deus ex animalis that justifies the climactic romantic pairing. Is it interspecies love if they’re the same species now? But what if the romantic interest started before that? Is this the story of the love of a beast for its keeper? How many of the humans we encounter on the street are merely animals returned to Earth in an inferior form? What are the implications of procreation in this universe, what is human anyway, and what will the sex be like? You Never Can Tell definitely has more potential for weirdness than it exploits, and possibly more than it knows.

You Never Can Tell is the kind of movie you could easily see being remade every dozen years or so, just to give new comedic talents a chance to unleash their inner hounds. It’s incredibly easy to picture this as a vehicle in the late 1990s. (Likely 2019 casting: Kevin Hart as Rex, Kate McKinnon as Goldie.) So it’s notable that the only (unacknowledged) remake of the film thus far, Oh, Heavenly Dog, flipped the script by reincarnating a human (Chevy Chase) as a dog (Benji). Maybe you need an actual animal to get more into character.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weird premise makes for a funny, inventive comedy. The dog and horse may be human in form, but they’re still animals. Some hilarious scenes play off this, and I won’t give any away. It’s a one-joke movie, sure, but it’s a funny joke, and one that can last the full running time without wearing thin.” – Samuel Stoddard, At-A-Glance Film Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

Peter Lorre is often cited as an example of a superior European actor  who made his way to Hollywood, only to be wasted when Tinseltown didn’t know what to do with him. He had gained worldwide attention for his unnerving performance as the child-murderer in ‘s German production, M (1931). Purportedly, even though Lorre was Jewish, Adolf Hitler loved the film and the actor, inviting Lorre to return to Germany. Lorre allegedly declined by responding that Germany already had one mass murderer too many. It may be an apocryphal story, but Lorre’s image was later used in Third Reich propaganda to depict the depravity of Jews, and his name was discovered to be on Hitler’s hit list.

In Hollywood, Lorre was mostly used as a character actor who could steal a scene from anyone. He only had a handful of starring roles that suited him; a superb Raskolnikov in ‘s Crime and Punishment (1935) and as Robert Florey’s Face Behind the Mask (1941). To most Americans , he is known for appearing in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor, arguably the first , and for his frequent teaming with co-star Sydney Greenstreet (most memorably in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon).

By the end of the 1940s, Lorre had come to despise the cartoonish roles offered him, along with the erroneous tag as a horror star (his only actual horror film was 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers). He had long wanted to direct, having learned much from working with Lang, von Sternberg, , , and Bertolt Brecht. Lorre’s continued friendship with Brecht—a rabid anti-Fascist—led to both being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as a brief stint on the studio blacklist and to his eventually being sacked by Warner Brothers. In 1951, a bankrupt Lorre set his sights on Europe, where he went to direct Der Verlorene (The Lost One) for producer Arnold Pressburger. Lorre also co-scripted a screenplay based loosely on his own novel about the suicide of Dr. Karl Rothe, who headed a research institute within the Third Reich.

Still from Verlorene (The Lost One) (1951)

Germany, still ravaged by Hitler, hardly wanted to be reminded of the Fascist period. The resulting film was a commercial disaster, despite being acclaimed, by the few critics who saw it, as a masterpiece of German cinema. With America deep in its own brand of Fascism (dubbed McCarthyism), Der Verlorene didn’t play in the U.S. Lorre never directed another film and returned to America in defeat, to continue in the caricatured roles Hollywood craved from him. Yet, Continue reading DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)

‘s The Man From Planet X (1951) was the first released movie depicting an extraterrestrial visitation. Although it was shot for peanuts, this Mid Century Films production is a lesser known cult entry in the sci-fi genre. Being the first of its kind, The Man From Plant X established many archetypes to come.

The studio wanted an exploitative film, tagging their alien invasion opus as “the weirdest visitor the earth has even seen!”  True to his nature, Ulmer instead delivered a tight little mood piece. It does have a (considerably) weird alien, but the finished film is probably not what the studio anticipated. Ulmer douses the film in glowing mist, dim lights and masterful compositions (his expressionist roots are still intact).

Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) and his daughter, Enid (Margaret Field, mother of actress Sally Field) have set up shop in a Scottish castle to monitor UFO sightings. Journalist John Lawrence () is on hand when an alien craft lands on the moors (the ship is patterned after much in 1930s modernism).

Still from The Man from Planet X (1951)The first appearance of the E.T. is a jolter. Ulmer’s eerily mute, Bauhaus alien looks like it might have been designed by Oscar Schlemmer. It is a masterfully surreal design; a gnomelike child that is simultaneously benign, fragile, and aggressive. The alien from a dying, freezing planet pre-dates Nicolas Roeg‘s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).  Sci-fi fans may see the influence Planet X had on later films like Invaders From Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to name a few. The alien is vulnerable, falling prey to a faulty breathing apparatus, which puts him at the mercy of the quietly malevolent Dr. Mears (dependable character actor William Schallert). Human avarice rears its ugly head and reaps havoc. The alien is exploited and provoked, the military called in, and…

Plot-wise we have seen it a hundred times, but it was done first here. The main difference is that Ulmer tells his tale without bells and whistles. With the exception of Schallert, the cast is unexceptional. However, Ulmer’s protagonist (Clark) is commendably intelligent and genuinely moral.

There is no cinematic chest-beating here. With meager shells, Ulmer and company produce a film adorned in his usual themes of ambiguity and self-destruction. Stylistically, The Man From Planet X  is dreamy and understated. Perhaps too understated. Despite some beautiful shots (alien in the moors, intense close-ups) and (now) familiar elements (the alien can only communicate via musical sounds, can control minds, and plots an invasion) The Man From Planet X is a commendable, atmospheric entry in the science fiction genre, but little more. Ulmer does wonders without a budget to speak of, but is clearly hampered by the six day shooting schedule. Pacing issues are not resolved and the film has little flow.

Next Week: Ida Lupino’s noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953).

LIST CANDIDATE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

Recommended

DIRECTOR: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske

 

FEATURING: Voices of Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson

PLOT: A young girl named Alice follows a talking white hare down his rabbit hole and into a world of talking animals, smoking insects, walking playing cards, and other nonsense creatures.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material.  Disney animator Eric Goldberg explains Alice‘s appeal: “I think the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is popular because it’s completely absurd… The book, in its kind of weirdness, persists because people like weird.”  The question becomes, does Disneyfication destroy the story’s weirdness?

COMMENTS: Though it doesn’t reach the level of the classic-era Disney animated masterpieces Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Pinocchio (1940), Alice in Wonderland is certainly in the next tier—notwithstanding the fact that it didn’t fare well on its initial release.  The animation, obviously, is glowing and superlative, and the anything-can-happen-here surrealism of the story gave the Disney artists the license to let their imaginations run wild without being fettered even by cartoon realism.  As might be expected, the result is worlds away from the staid, quaintly absurd black and white line drawings of Sir John Tenniel (the standard vision of Alice and Wonderland up until that time).  The rabbit hole, with its grandfather clocks and rocking chairs floating at different rates, doesn’t follow the rules of gravity; the flexibility of the playing card royal guards allows the animators to arrange them into pickets or to spontaneously form roller coasters to take Alice for a ride.  Scarcity of spectacle is not an issue in Wonderland.  As an adaptation, this Alice is surprisingly smooth.  Episodes from the book have been shuffled around and mixed with characters and events from “Through the Looking Glass,” an example that future Alices would follow (since no one wants to leave out Tweedledee and Tweedledum).  Even digressions like the “The Walrus and the Carpenter” interlude, which plays like a self-standing Looney Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (1951)

I suppose I was in the vast minority in 1978 when I still preferred as Superman, and especially as Clark Kent, as opposed to Christopher Reeve.

One could argue this was, perhaps, merely nostalgia since I grew up watching repeats of the Adventures of Superman every Saturday as a young child, but it was more than that.

The Superman I recalled pre-1978 was derived from film noir, rather than science fiction, although there was always latent and simplistic sci-fi elements. The art deco Fleischer cartoons were a resplendent example of this. Superman/Kent might tackle a local mad scientist or robots run amok, but he still had to predominantly deal with diamond stealing gangsters, a feisty Lois Lane, and a cigar chomping news editor boss. In the classic Superman comics he did occasionally have a colorful villain, such as the impish prankster whose name no one can pronounce, Braniac, and Bizarro, but he was not blessed with Batman’s rogue gallery of nemeses, and usually was content battling wits with the dull Lex Luthor.

Still from Superman and the Mole Men (1951)Since the Richard Donner film, the Superman character has completely forsaken its golden age and radio origins, and Superman is a pimply faced superboy, not long past puberty.  George Reeves’ Superman was already pushing forty when he made his debut.  Reeves remained in the monkey suit (as he called it) until his death at forty five. Reeves personified the classic age Superman in that he was every adolescent boy’s idea of a super father figure.  Sure, he wore a padded suit, clearly “flew” on a glass table and ducked when bad guys threw their emptied Continue reading SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (1951)