Tuesday, March 29, 2011
MYTHICITY: (1)*poor*; (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy;* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
Previous to this I've only referenced the category "enthralling hypnotism and stage magic" in the case of the kung-fu film JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED, which employed hypnosis as a marginal effect. In these two films, however, mesmerism is the main metaphenomenality.
HOLD THAT HYPNOTIST, one of the last few Bowery Boys programmers, bears a slight distinction in that it actually has a plot, as against most of the serials, which usually hinged on introducing a wild premise and then doing a succession of schtick comedy-bits before wrapping up with a big brawl.
The "Boy" heroes suspect a famed hypnotist, Doctor Noble, of being a con-artist. To their surprise, it appears that Noble is capable of bringing about a state of "hypnotic regression," in that his subject, the goony Sach, finds himself reliving a past life in the days of pirate yore. (The film came out about five years after the notorious "Bridey Murphy" case.) Because Sach seems to have recalled the spot where pirate treasure lies buried, both the Boys and various crooks (including Dr. Noble) are hot to get him to reveal the location. Thus throughout over half the picture, it seems as if HYPNOTIST will fall into the category of "the marvelous," in that it's arguing for the reality of soul transmigration.
However, toward the picture's end Sach realizes that everything he dreamed in a hypnotic state was actually recapitulated from a book of pirate yarns. Nevertheless, although Noble's hypnosis doesn't work on all subjects (he fails with the character "Duke"), the film does exploit the sense of hypnotism as a near-magical influence that Noble and others can wield, so it falls under the category of "the uncanny." (I should note that other uses of hypnotism can fall within the domain of the isophenomenal, as with an earlier Bowery Boys entry, 1955's SPY CHASERS, where the hypno-shenanigans lack the quality I call "strangeness.") The mythic content here is pretty low, aside from how the film spoofs the tendency of regression-patients to imagine themselves having had more romantic former lives-- which I regard as related to Campbell's sociological function.
Far more than HYPNOTIST, KING OF THE ZOMBIES looks as if it intends to be flat-out marvelous. Three American travelers (Mac and Bill, two white guys, and Jeff, played by the black comedian Mantan Moreland) crash-land on a remote Caribbean island. There they are taken to the estate of eccentric Doctor Sangre, whose retinue includes a pretty niece-by-marriage (pretty much just the standard female-lead fodder), a wife who walks around in a trance, and black servants who seem to be zombies.
For roughly half the picture, the film plays with the notion that these zombies may actually be the dead brought back to life, much to the chagrin of Moreland's comic valet. However, in due time it's demonstrated that not only are the zombies not truly the walking dead, they aren't even transformed into zombies by anything as outre as Bela Lugosi's potion from 1932's WHITE ZOMBIE. Instead, Sangre's hypnotic skills convince living men to believe themselves his dead servants, though for some unknown reason the hypnosis works on Bill but not on Jeff, who throws off Sangre's spell amid assorted comic ripostes. Further, although Sangre does conduct a voodoo ceremony with the help of local believers, for him the ceremony is just another device to accomplish his ends, which involve culling information from a captured Naval officer. (As America had not yet entered the war, Nazis are not specifically mentioned though they are implied by Sangre's "Austrian" background.)
The sociological elements of a white man enslaving black victims is not nearly as strong here as in the earlier WHITE ZOMBIE, but in a sense KING forges a new direction in that the character of Jeff is reasonably resourceful despite his frequent "scaredycat" routines.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
PHENOMENALITY: (1)*uncanny;* (2) *atypical*
MYTHICITY: (1)*fair*; (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
Going by the two illustrations from these jungle flicks, one might think they were pretty similar: your basic "girl, guy, and a gorilla" films. But though both of them are unassuming potboilers, there are some structural differences between the two that illustrate why my tenth and last trope, "astounding animals," can appear as "uncanny" in one framework but "atypical" in another.
One significant difference is that though SAVAGE GIRL does have a white girl palling around with a chimpanzee for no textually-explicable reason, there really isn't anything "astounding" about the chimp (aside from his looking much bigger in the art than he is in the film). The chimp hangs around with the leopardskin-clad "Savage Girl" (Rochelle Hudson) and then pretty much disappears as the film concentrates on its real theme: whether the girl gets tamed by leering reprobate Alex or "nice guy" Jim. There are a couple of references to the nameless girl as a "white goddess," but she does nothing to foster that impression: probably the writers tossed out this familiar trope to implicitly explain why the African natives left the girl alone. But this "white goddess" lacks the imposing qualities given a similar character in 1931's TRADER HORN. Thus, despite her being loosely patterned on other, more extraordinary jungle foundlings, Nameless Girl doesn't measure up as an uncanny heroine despite wearing an "outre outfit," and the natives in her bailiwick lack any exotic tropes, despite the script's hilarious allegation that they practice "voodoo."
NABONGA isn't written much better but it does take more advantage of the "girl and her gorilla" myth-theme. True, in contrast to the familiar TARZAN paradigm, in which rape-happy apes constantly grabbed young white girls as objects of lust, the viewer never quite knows why the gorilla (Samson, played by Ray Corrigan under the peculiar nom de gorilla "N'bongo") is attached to Doreen (Julie London), who lives in the jungle in the wreck of her father's plane and also wears a leopardskin onepiece. Samson's relationship to Doreen seems cribbed more from ANDROCLES AND THE LION, since the gorilla first meets the girl when he's been wounded by white hunters and she offers to help him. Thus their relationship seems more like that of siblings than mates. And although Samson does try to kill white hunter Ray whenever he gets close to Doreen, she has only to command Samson to stay away and the gorilla obeys: acting more like a surly brother than a jealous would-be-lover. Most of the film concerns the attempts of Ray to learn the truth about Doreen's embezzler father, while two villains, white hunter Carl and bargirl Marie, attempt to trap Samson for sale to a zoo. In the unsurprising end Ray gets away with Doreen and Samson tears apart both Carl and Marie, their death-agonies discreetly offscreen.
Discretion, however, suggested more than mere violence to author Alex Vernon, who in his book ON TARZAN alleged that Marie does get not just killed, but also raped, by the ape.
And yet, even though nothing in the script overtly suggests Samson as being warm for the human form, there's one mythically-intense moment early in NABONGA, in which a rogue gorilla intrudes on Doreen's home and Samson savagely drives the rival away. At this point alone, NABONGA does stray into the psychological terrain of Edgar Rice Burroughs' and his rape-happy apes. Thus Samson, because he is at once an ape and yet seems like something more as well, does qualify for the trope of "astounding animals," and shifts this otherwise routine film into the realm of the uncanny.
Friday, March 18, 2011
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
“It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life!”
“Planes with atom bombs don’t get stolen in real life… Don’t give me that crap about real life. There ain’t no such animal.”--James Bond first, Felix Leiter second, in THUNDERBALL (1961)
Umberto Eco once labeled the James Bond films “science fiction.” Despite the films’ use of extraordinary gadgets (much less pronounced in the books), most SF-fans would probably not rush to place the Bond mythos in that category. However, even if one were to dismiss the super-gadgets to which Eco perhaps referred, both the books and films of Bond do qualify for my category of the metaphenomenal. THUNDERBALL is ideal for showing how different fantasy-tropes can appear in a world that looks much like our own, while the characters in that world assiduously deny the existence of an animal called “real life.”
In Ian Fleming’s 1961 book THUNDERBALL, almost all of the gadgets and weaponry used by heroes and villains are purely conventional, including the atom bombs stolen by chief villain Emilio Largo. The only exception is a gadget used by Largo’s boss, SPECTRE-mastermind Blofeld, to terminate a subordinate’s employment; Blofeld “fires” the man with an electric chair. This is not the only source of metaphenomenality in the book, but if it were, I would judge the book within the category of “the uncanny” for its use of the trope “outré outfits, skills, and weapons.” Atom bombs themselves are not “outré,” though the act of stealing them may be, but a criminal who knocks off another criminal with an electric chair is definitely beyond the pale of rational convention.
The 1965 film, in contrast to the more marvelous elements of 1964’s GOLDFINGER (like the Aston-Martin supercar), has more gadgets than the book but they too are merely somewhat unconventional and hence “uncanny.” For instance, while in the book a minor villain is killed with a simple grenade, in the movie Largo’s henchwoman Fiona executes her target with miniature rocket-launchers mounted on the front of a motorcycle. Like Blofeld’s electric-charged chair, such a device is not impossible to make, but it is improbable enough to edge its way into the domain of the aforementioned trope.
But I specified earlier that one DID NOT need the gadgets to view the Bond mythos as metaphenomenal, and THUNDERBALL makes a good example of another fantasy-trope on which I’ve not yet expatiated: the “bizarre crime.” All crimes are transgressions of some social order, of course. However, certain crimes—ranging from the hijacking of atom bombs to (say) the Marquis deSade’s more inventive tortures—go beyond not just the order of human custom but the order of the rational.
In passing I should note that if the earlier-reviewed film MADAME SIN did not have an element of the marvelous, as laid out in this review, it too would qualify as “uncanny” through the same sort of “bizarre crime,” since the villain in that telefilm plots a very THUNDERBALL-like coup: heisting an atomic submarine.
In addition, the Fleming books contain yet another trope that most of the films usually do not. I haven’t yet devoted any space to the trope I call “freakish flesh,” but I must note that Fleming’s books also distance themselves from “real life” by making the villains into grotesques out of Chester Gould. In THUNDERBALL the book, Blofeld has eyes like those of a doll, “totally surrounded… by very clear whites,” and while print-Largo lacks the piratical eyepatch given Adolfo Celi, print-Largo’s ears look “almost pointed” while his mouth belongs “to a satyr.” I’ll explore this trope in more detail in future film-analyses.
Returning to the THUNDERBALL film: this was the fourth in the series, in which director Terence Young, who helmed the first and second films, returned following Guy Hamilton’s GOLDFINGER. Yet THUNDERBALL doesn’t attain the mythic and kinetic heights of either GOLDFINGER or Young’s own DOCTOR NO. One weakness is Largo, who despite his daring crime is not very interesting in print or film. The various underwater combat-scenes read well on the page, but don’t translate effectively to the big screen.
The film’s largest deficit may be its handling of the romantic relationship of Bond and Domino Vitali, who begins as Largo’s mistress but who turns against the villain when Bond reveals that Largo had Domino’s brother killed. (In book and movie, Largo never knows of a connection between his mistress and the murdered man; clearly the writers’ god “Coincidence” reigns supreme here.)
No one should mistake Ian Fleming for a feminist. He wrote “blood and thunder” pulp fiction to an audience dominated by men, and often reflected the more sexist attitudes of his time. Nevertheless, his female characters are on occasion quite formidable, and the book makes clear that Domino is not merely a “kept woman,” but a Venus who gives her favors as she pleases. For instance, in the book she pretends that she needs Bond’s aid when she steps on the spines of a sea-creature, and later tells him that she could have helped herself, but feigned helplessness so that he would seduce her. This revelation doesn’t appear in the movie, and actress Claudine Auger isn’t able to convey Domino’s Italian fire on her own talents.
Further, while in both works Domino does revenge herself on Largo by shooting him with a harpoon, thereby saving Bond’s life, film-Domino is not nearly as formidable as print-Domino. In the book Largo tortures Domino when he learns she’s helping Bond, and though the torture isn’t depicted in detail on the page, the method— applying alternating heat (a cigar) and cold (ice cubes) to the skin-- is described prior to the act. However, in the film Largo is interrupted before the torture can begin, possibly in deference to sensitive mainstream audiences. Moreover, after print-Domino is tortured, she frees herself from her prison and despite her burn-wounds swims a considerable distance to the site where Bond is on the verge of being choked to death by Largo, and then kills Largo. Film-Domino doesn’t even get loose from her ropes without help. Certainly Felix Leiter would never say of this character: “I swear I’ll never call a girl a ‘frail’ again --not an Italian girl, anyway!”
The film’s only interesting invention is henchwoman Fiona. One presumes she was created primarily to increase the movie’s babe-quotient, but the scripters give Fiona one scene in which she’s clearly envious of Domino’s relationship with Largo. Thus the slight Oedipal pattern of the book (younger man wins young woman from older man) is supplemented with a new element. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Fiona seduces Bond to set him up for capture, and then mocks him for his inability to sway her with his legendary lovemaking. One might interpret this sequence as the “loyal daughter” refusing to turn against the father as the “disloyal daughter” does. Then again, it may just be that Young and his people were having metatextual fun with Bond’s ladykiller rep, which in GOLDFINGER extends to his being able to “de-gay” lesbian Pussy Galore.
A minor sociological myth-theme is suggested by the idea of criminals entering the “nuclear brinkmanship” game played by rival nations; here Bond can rout the atomic blackmailers of SPECTRE without worrying about going to war with their sponsors. But this too is stronger in the book.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
“Have you ever seen a man who looked and acted like a cat? A woman, yes, but a man?”—comic hero Wally Campbell (Bob Hope), CAT AND THE CANARY
In addition to this rumination on gender standards, Hope’s Wally character makes clear, quite early in the film, that the subject matter of the story he inhabits is a mouldy tale indeed: a deceased patriarch, a spooky old house where the heirs must meet to hear the reading of his will, a forbidding housekeeper devoted to the late patriarch, and a fearsome menace stalking the people stuck in the mansion. And in truth even before any cinematic adaptations of the story (this one being the third), the 1922 play was designed to play all of these Gothic tropes for both thrills and laughs.
Gothic novels were known for raising the specters of spiritual presences only to banish them as hoaxes. But although one character (Gale Sondergaard’s housekeeper “Miss Lu”) professes belief in spirits, no one else in the ’39 film worries about ghosts. In deference to 20th-century skepticism, the fearful menace is an escaped maniac who acts like a cat. But the Gothic pattern of “the big reveal” is still observed, as the psycho is revealed to be a scheming relative, out to kill heiress Joyce (Paulette Goddard) so that the bequest will fall to him.
I’ve never read (nor am likely to read) the original play, and prior to seeing the 1939 iteration had only seen one film-adaptation: the 1927 silent film by Paul Leni, which generally gets the highest rating of all the cinematic outings. Without reviewing all of these sources, I can’t be sure what if anything may be original about this version. However, given that director Elliot Nugent’s handling of the material is adequate but prosaic, I suspect that any of the symbolic resonances I’ve seen in this film stem from earlier iterations. A particular disappointment is Nugent’s handling of the archetypal moment when the heiress (or “canary”) is menaced by a beastly cat-claw. Where Leni exaggerates the claw’s proportions and makes the moment sublimely creepy, Nugent’s “claw” is depressingly human-sized.
Regardless, Hope’s line about aligning cats and women is certainly meant to have some resonance. Long before the psychotic “Cat” is said to be on the loose, a real cat (black, of course) is seen flitting around the old dark house, and on occasion the cat seems consubstantial with Miss Lu. In one scene, Miss Lu stands on a staircase overlooking Wally and other characters. The lights go out, come up again, and presto! The black cat has taken the place of the housekeeper. There are no other “witchy” incidents for Miss Lu, though her talk of “a demon” haunting the house makes one wonder if she knows that the real specter here is yet another fortune-seeking bad relative.
There are other odd takes on femininity in the ’39 film. The plot calls for a group of distant cousins to assemble for the reading-- cousins, so that there will be some common reason for them to be named in the will; distant, so that Wally can romance Joyce without raising the specter of incest. In some Gothic tales the passing of a patriarch calls forth his bastard children, but the only time the film accounts for so many distant cousins is when one of the female cousins mentions a “great aunt” who had a big family. In fact, the speaker is scandalized to hear a second woman use the word “prolific”—a word one associates more with animals than humans—only to find out that the second woman is talking about real animals: a throng of crocodiles in the surrounding Louisiana swamp. Still, the idea of a “great aunt” who seems to be the Louisiana equivalent to Diana of the Many Breasts finds its symbolic opposite in Sondergaard’s cat-loving spinster.
Paulette Goddard’s Joyce has her “prolific” aspects too. Though the script implies that most of the cousins haven’t seen much of each other in recent years, two of the male cousins, Fred and Charlie, compete for Joyce’s attentions, as does Wally. At some earlier time Wally deserted Joyce at a dance because she was a “twerp” (read= undeveloped), while Joyce and Charlie apparently had some sort of romantic fling, though they broke up because of some tomcattish behavior from Charlie. Wally redeems himself for his earlier neglect, however, while Charlie, his strongest competitor for Joyce, proves to be the man behind the cat-mask. But neither Wally nor Joyce bells the Cat; Sondergaard, acting in the role of a punishing mother, ends Charlie’s threat by blasting him with a shotgun. (The script tosses out some last-minute conflict between Miss Lu and Charlie, but it doesn't resonate with anything else in the film.) Joyce rewards Miss Lu by giving her the spooky old mansion, after which she and Wally return to the real world.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
This entry in the Charlie Chan film series was the first to feature actor Sidney Toler in the role (following the death of predecessor Warner Oland), as well as being the first to feature Victor Sen Yung as the “Number Two son” (following the departure of Keye Luke, the “Number One Son.”) In addition, it’s among the earliest of the films to spotlight Chan’s large Honolulu-based family, which contributes some warm character humor to “expectant grandfather” Chan. Still, the main mystery-plot is routine in all respects save the location, as Chan is forced to ferret out a murderer aboard a passenger vessel. In addition, the film is also of interest for its flirtation with the horror-genre.
The original Chan books by Earl Derr Biggers have a strong sociological mythicity, in that Chan’s ethnicity allows him to take the perspective of the “outsider looking in” at the majority culture in which he moves. A handful of the Chan films touch on this theme, but HONOLULU isn’t one of them, for most of the characters are as routine as the murder-mystery plot.
The only exception is the character of Doctor Cardigan (George Zucco), who seems to be a mad doctor escaped from a horror-film. In his shipboard stateroom Cardigan keeps a living brain kept alive by various Frankenstein-looking apparati, and he not only hints that he may’ve committed the murder but that he may be on some sort of “brain-collecting” fiend. He turns out to be a mere eccentric, which is something of a letdown since Cardigan is one of George Zucco’s strongest performances. In one interview Zucco lamented that he got stuck playing “evil old men,” but here he’s both creepy and amusing as long as one doesn’t yet know whether or not he’s doing a Lugosi. As Chan tries to suss Cardigan out during their first meeting, there’s a good “face off” scene that seems to portend a major clash of good and evil, reminiscent of a similar scene between Oland and Boris Karloff in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA.
However, a mere flirtation with horror-motifs is not enough to propel this mundane mystery into the realm of the uncanny, so its phenomenality remains simply “atypical" in my system.