APES ON FILM: DOCTOR X Builds a Creature while BABYDOLL Gets Scandalous!

Posted on: May 17th, 2021 By:

by Anthony Taylor
Contributing Writer

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny. Apes on Film also appears on Nerd Alert News. Check them out HERE!

 

 

DOCTOR X – 1932
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Lionel Atwill , Fay Wray, Lee Tracy , Preston Foster
Director: Michael Curtiz
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Warner Archive Collection
Region: A
BRD Release Date: April 20, 2021
Audio Formats: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC. New 4K HD Transfer Restoration by UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with Warner Bros. Entertainment
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Run Time: 76 minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

Director Michael Curtiz is best known for making film classics like CASABLANCA, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and CAPTAIN BLOOD, but he also directed a trio of significant early horror films as well. DOCTOR X was the first of these, followed by MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933 – reviewed here), and THE WALKING DEAD (1936). The first two films were shot using two-strip Technicolor®, while the third was shot in black and white. Warner Archive Collection has just released a fully restored version of DOCTOR X and the results are breathtaking. Once again, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation have done an incredible job in reviving an important film from a dull, damaged carcass.

Featuring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray (just as Wax Museum did), DOCTOR X is another pre-code horror title of the type that would be defanged by the censors had it been released just a few years later. The film has much to recommend about it. For example, Ray Rennehan’s cinematography is lush and fluid, art direction by Anton Grot is well ahead of its time, and many of the performances are quite good. It deals in cannibalism and body horror, perhaps the first Hollywood film to do so. However, the film is unfortunately saddled with some far-fetched and frankly ridiculous characters and situations that became overused tropes almost by the time it was released.

Atwill and Wray acquit themselves well, but Lee Tracy is nearly unwatchable as a Leo Gorcey-like newspaper reporter that is the least funny comic relief ever. Full of 1930s mannerisms (ok, I get it – it was the 1930s) and catchphrases, he comes off as pandering to an audience who came fully prepared to see a horrifying thriller. He seems to have been inserted by the WB brass who were afraid that the horror film “craze” started at Universal Studios wouldn’t translate to their gangster and crime-themed format. Also stinking up the joint – a police commissioner who allows Atwill’s Dr. Xavier forty-eight hours to conduct his own investigation to determine which of the professors at his university is a serial killer at large before letting his detectives take over. That kind of malarkey would get you fired even in 1932, folks. This film definitely seems like a precursor to Wax Museum, with many similar (though better presented) themes recurring in that film.

Warner Archive’s disc is presented very well, with only a few jump cuts throughout where the team was unable to spread available imagery far enough to account for missing frames. Audio is also quite good. The disc comes with a black and white version of the film that was shot simultaneously, as well as a slew of special features such as new commentaries by Alan K. Rode and Scott MacQueen, documentary “Madness & Mystery: The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz” (HD, 27:39) by Constantine Nasr, “Doctor X: Before and After Restoration Reel” (HD, 7:40), and the theatrical trailer: black and white version (HD, 2:15).

This is the kind of amazing restoration and packaging that Warner Media chair Jason Kilar is trying to kill; he’s a digital streaming-only zealot. If he has his way WB would release no physical media at all, and the public will be deprived of this kind of release. If you love classic films and physical media, let Warner Brothers know. Buy this or their other discs. Write them letters. Show them that there will always be an audience for great movies from the past that can be owned outright.

 

 

 

BABYDOLL – 1956
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach
Directed By: Elia Kazan
Studio: Warner Archive Collection
BRD Release Date: February 16, 2021
Region: A
Rated: Unrated
Audio Formats: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC New 2K Master
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Run Time: 115 Minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

With a director, cast and writer like this, it’s hard to go wrong – and BABYDOLL doesn’t. Steeped in the kind of sultry, southern-gothic atmosphere and seething sexual tension one expects of a Tennessee Williams script, the film is bursting at the seams with tawdry dialog, black comedy, backhanded insults, and character flaw reveals of the highest level.

Baker plays Babydoll, Malden’s virginal wife who is promised to him sexually when she turns twenty, a few days hence. Down on their luck financially, the couple’s furniture is repossessed. Malden blames his cotton ginning competitor Wallach (in his debut screen role) for their fate and burns down his plant. Wallach sets upon Babydoll to confirm his suspicions of arson, and the pair spend a day barely avoiding falling into each other’s arms. The trio burst into open hostility when Malden arrives, with Wallach and Baker using each other to taunt and belittle him into a rage of jealousy.

The film was denounced by the Catholic church’s National League of Decency on release, and pulled from distribution a few weeks later by Warner Brothers. It’s easy to see what it was so controversial; BABYDOLL and a handful of other films railed against the Hays Code, which had banned exactly this sort of film in 1934 and would continue to keep films at “G” to PG” equivalent rating until it was overturned in 1968. Though nothing explicit is shown onscreen, the overt sexual tones and themes are vividly on display. Despite its chilly reception, the film would garner several Academy Award nominations and was a hit with critics. Kazan won a Golden Globe and Wallach a BAFTA Award for BABYDOLL.

Warner’s presentation Blu-ray is once again a pleasure to view. The picture is flawless, and sound is good, though there’s quite a dichotomy of volume for some of the dialog, and a few of the lower volume examples might have been amplified a bit. Special features are sparse. There’s a featurette from 2006 – “See No Evil: Baby Doll” (SD, 13 minutes) which includes interviews with the three principles, and a HD theatrical trailer (3 minutes).

While not the milestone that LOLITA (with which this film has been compared) was, BABYDOLL is an important and entertaining movie with great performances and direction.  Recommended.

 

 

Anthony Taylor is not only the Minister of Science, but also Defender of the Faith. His reviews and articles have appeared in magazines such as Screem, Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland, SFX, Video*WatcHDog, and more.

*Art Credit: Anthony Taylor as Dr. Zaius caricature by Richard Smith

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Retro Review: ON THE WATERFRONT Proved Marlon Brando Was Much More Than a Contender, at Plaza Theatre This Week

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2013 By:

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954); Dir: Elia Kazan; Starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb; Starts Friday, March 29.; The Plaza Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), a landmark film of the 1950s featuring one of the maybe two or three most memorable roles of Marlon Brando’s career, begins a revival run today at the Plaza Theatre. It’s a movie that many people have heard of but few have actually seen, and it’s one of those crazy films where the story behind the scenes casts a longer shadow than the one on the screen.

Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a simple guy who keeps to himself, tends a pigeon coop, and finds work by the day on the New Jersey docks. His brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), is connected to the dockworkers’ union run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a crook who years ago put an end to Terry’s rising boxing career by forcing Terry to throw a fight. When Friendly comes under investigation by the authorities, he rallies the union around him and starts snipping the loose ends, but when Terry develops a distaste for Friendly’s murders, he has to make a decision between staying loyal to the union or doing what he knows to be right.

ON THE WATERFRONT is a conservative parable, an anti-union tale that works because of (or in spite of?) the seething anti-Commie anger of legendary director Elia Kazan. During the peak of the Red Scare, Kazan was dragged before Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities and, either from an inflated sense of patriotism or a desire to save his own neck, came clean about his past associations with communist groups and even named names of his co-conspirators (most of whom went to a few parties in their youth and then went to bed. It’s Hollywood, after all. The only ideology is the opening weekend). The film community turned on Kazan for cooperating with the witch hunt, but a defiant Kazan refused to apologize. He truly believed in the danger Communism posed to America, and hated the fact that some around him questioned his patriotism, the guy willing to ferret out the Red Threat. Kazan funneled his anger into the story of Terry Malloy and his crummy life, ruined when Terry bowed to pressure and refused to stick up for his principles, a man crushed by doing the bidding of others rather than himself. Terry is an Ayn Rand cautionary tale.

If ON THE WATERFRONT doesn’t jibe with your brand of politics, it’s tempting to dismiss it as propaganda, but that would mean ignoring a truly great movie and one of the all-time great film performances. Kazan was a master storyteller and he was motivated to bring his very best game. The film sweats anger from its pores as it depicts the trials of Terry, played by Brando as the ultimate sad sack resigned to having missed the only chances that would ever come his way. Brando was only a couple of years removed from his foundation-shattering performance as Stanley in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), also directed by Kazan, and the actor uses ON THE WATERFRONT as a lab to experiment with his role as an anti-star. The studio system was still strong in 1954, and the currency of the day was bankable movie stars. They didn’t want actors, they wanted known quantities who could repeat a winning performance in picture after picture. To his credit, Brando couldn’t have cared less what the studio wanted, or that he was meant to be a sex symbol. He disappeared into his roles, inhabiting them in a way that sparked a revolution in movie acting, and that’s not hyperbole. Brando changed everything, and he’s so electric and alive in the role of Terry that the weight of his cinematic legacy disappears. He’s perfect.

Equally incredible is the work of Karl Malden as the “dock priest” who fights the tyranny of the union bosses with impassioned speeches and principled beliefs. Malden was a tremendous actor, but he’s never better as he competes with the force of nature he’s acting against. Don’t miss Malden’s fiery speech to the dockworkers whose behavior has strayed so far from the moral high ground.

ON THE WATERFRONT’s most famous line—“I coulda been a contender!”—is a cry from Kazan that everybody has a right to stand up for what they believe in. If Terry had refused the dive, he could have been somebody. In Kazan’s mind, he avoided the easy fall. Naming names to McCarthy was the hard way out, at least as he saw it. ON THE WATERFRONT is Kazan’s angry appeal to see the nobility in sticking to your principles, even at the cost of a friend. The subject is a thorny one, even fifty years and a lifetime of politics away.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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