Essential: HUNTED (1952)

Part 1 of 2

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Dirk Bogarde and Jon Whiteley

TB: Dirk Bogarde said HUNTED was his personal favorite of all the motion pictures he made, and it’s easy to see why it was such a special experience for him. I think he does a remarkable job, and nearly all his scenes occur with young Jon Whiteley. Whiteley was a novice to moviemaking but he’s a natural. Thoughts on their working relationship, and the relationship between their two characters, Chris and Robbie?


JL: I saw at least one documentary on Dirk’s career but did not know what films were his favorites. It is a different kind of role for a leading man of romantic films at this early stage of his career, so I can understand why he liked it. Later, of course, he took on equally curious and sometimes sinister roles for Luchino Visconti and others in the more “international” period of his career. No, he does not look like the killer type, but that is based on how stereotypical killers are portrayed on screen.

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JL: Jon Whiteley is a natural, as is Hayley Mills (who will be discussed next week). However this is the only role I have seen him in. I have not seen THE SPANISH GARDENER. He reminds me of the two most famous on-screen Oliver Twists. Not Jackie Coogan, but John Howard Davies and Mark Lester. Obviously these boys contrast from spunky Hayley who is a bundle of energy and has little trouble taking care of herself. The character of Robbie constantly needs somebody’s personal care.

Chris and Robbie

TB: On screen the relationship between Chris and Robbie evolves considerably. At first, Chris is a bit rough with Robbie (not unlike the boy’s abusive adoptive father). But gradually Chris softens. It’s an unusual sort of redemption story. Would you agree?

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JL: The way Chris grabs Robbie by the arm and drags him about reminded me of the way both of my parents were with me. They were very impatient with me, even though they weren’t criminals on the run like Chris here. That is why the key scene with the boarding house lady (Jane Aird) is so important. She notices he has been through abuse and we, the viewers, know it is not on account of Chris.

TB: We do not get too much of Robbie’s backstory.

JL: From what we gather, Robbie was playing with matches and burned his stepmother’s curtains but thinks he burned down the house. Believing he is a criminal at the tender age of seven, he is running away…and winding up with another criminal that he discovered standing over a corpse. Chris is a sympathetic character we find ourselves oddly rooting for. We do not see the murder take place and are not entirely sure if it was partly an accident and partly a result of Chris getting caught up in his passions, but murder is still murder and his running away is not helping his case.


TB: The premise doesn’t seem like it would generate strong box office. We have a violent killer running off with a troubled boy. Initially, nobody they meet seems to suspect them of being fugitives. But things do get more difficult for them when Chris makes the front page of the newspaper. Do you find them being able to take off so easily a realistic thing?

JL: You say he is a “violent killer” but that is major problem here for me. We don’t see how the murder is committed and whether it was done in cold-blood or more accidentally. He does appear dazed and upset when we first see him as if he is trying to process what had happened. We also don’t see Chris particularly “violent” during the rest of the movie.

TB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris does not exhibit violent tendencies after the murder.

JL: Regarding whether or not the police was too slow in responding (testing our sense of realism here), what I found particularly interesting were all of the scenes of bombed out buildings that hadn’t been rebuilt after a war that ended six or seven years ago. It sent a message that Great Britain still had plenty of “rubble” to sort through and that it was rather easy for certain criminals to get a head start in their escapes.

Two lost souls

TB: I read a comment in a user review on the IMDb that I think is worth bringing up. A reviewer said “They are two lost souls traversing the countryside together. They are two people of different ages teaming up for a common cause.”

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TB: Do you agree with this? At what point, do we take the rose-colored glasses off and say you know what, this is really a story about child abduction? I think society in late 1951 when this movie was filmed, obviously was very different from society now. It would be a tough sell to make this film today and try to market it as a feel-good buddy film. Also I think people would automatically assume he abducted the boy for sexual reasons. It wouldn’t seem so innocent now. What’s your take on that aspect of the film?

JL: On the surface, it seems like Robbie has been kidnapped as a witness to a crime and his step-parents are with the police trying to find him. Yet Robbie wants to stay with Chris. It is not like Chris is mean at him at all.

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JL: We do not know all of the plot details right away, which makes the story all the more interesting. For example, we are merely teased early on who the corpse is in a newspaper Chris reads, but much later find out, after confronting his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), that he was her boss whom she may have been having an affair with. Likewise, we only much later learn, as they are staying at a boarding house, that Robbie has bruises on his body that did NOT come from Chris. No, home is not a happy place for him to be.

TB: How do Chris and Robbie relate to one another? They form a rather strong bond in a short period of time.

JL: Chris can relate to Robbie’s lack of family love. His own brother refuses to take them in, although he was still nice enough to feed them, because of his “reputation with the community.” These two are outsiders who have nobody but each other. They bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in THE DEFIANT ONES) while on the run, even if running is not the best option for seven year olds who happen to get sick… and, as a result, Chris must make the ultimate decision in the dramatic climax aboard a herring boat.

Postwar poverty and the influence of Italian neorealism

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and discuss the overarching theme. Or at least one of the main themes, which is postwar poverty. HUNTED conveys a sense of gritty realism and there’s very little sentimentality, except in a few key scenes. Robbie doesn’t smile until halfway into the story. And he doesn’t laugh until near the end. But then he gets sick, so his sunny disposition doesn’t last long. There really isn’t a lot of joy in this movie. Any specific thoughts on that?

JL: I saw a lot of similarities to the Italian imports, the neorealism of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini and future Bogarde director Visconti. One key smiling scene of Robbie eating pasta with Chris and his brother reminded me of a similar scene in the pessimistic THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which topped the Sight & Sound poll the same year this film was released to theaters and was a benchmark of sorts that many “artistic” film-makers were imitating.

TB: Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue to discuss HUNTED and what makes it so special.

Please be sure to join us for Part 2…

Part 2 of 2

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More about Italian neorealism

TB: Okay, we’re back to continue our discussion of HUNTED. When we left off yesterday, we had been discussing how the film’s director (Charles Crichton) was probably influenced by Italian neorealism. Anything else you’d like to say about that?

JL: This film is quite similar to other thrillers of the period that made great use of locales, but NOT in a tourist “pretty travelogue” sense. The Italians were presenting their country warts and all. The Brits and Yanks were impressed enough to do the same, but we do get some lovely countryside later on.

TB: Yes, good point.

JL: I am not sure if Visconti’s OSESSIONE had much of a release in the U.K. by this time and whether or not Chris Crichton and cinematographer Eric Cross saw it before doing this one. My guess is that they had only seen THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a gargantuan international box-office smash.

Memorable scenes

TB: A few scenes stand out to me. Meaning I thought they were expertly staged and acted. Number one, I loved the scene where they jump off the old bridge on to the train. It’s a nail biter.

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TB: Also, I consider the scene where Chris tells Robbie the bedtime story to be very memorable. It’s a clever way to use to reveal some of Chris’ backstory. And I think the scenes at the end are particularly effective– the part where Chris turns back the boat, and when he carries a very sick Robbie off the boat.

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TB: Did these scenes affect you, too? Or were there other moments that stood out for you in HUNTED?

JL: The train scene was great, but we get a lot of those in these types of films. I also liked all of the shots of gulls at the end.

TB: There’s a lack of background music in many of the scenes. This helps us focus on what the characters are saying and thinking. Did you notice this?

JL: Yes, there were scenes with no music but I didn’t notice it as particularly unusual, but that is an interesting perspective.

Camera work

TB: What are your thoughts on the way it was filmed?

JL: There were some great opening shots done from a small boy’s eye level. The first part of the movie showcases Robbie’s point of view; lots of low angle shots, close ups of horses startled in the city streets and adults looking down at the viewer. Later, when the emphasis shifts to Chris the adult lead, the camera compositions change.

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TB: Yes. I hadn’t considered the different vantage points, in terms of how the characters were photographed.

JL: All of the earlier shots focus on Robbie’s point of view with the camera angles presented accordingly. Also we don’t see the actual crime committed but come into the aftermath scene just as Robbie does. Therefore, we can understand why he becomes attracted to Chris and does not fear him as a murderer.

TB: The camerawork seems to change when they reach the boarding house. There are group shots, from more of an omniscient point of view.

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JL: There are also some very nice Hitchcockian set-pieces too, including the all-important railroad track narrow escape scene. One particularly good scene earlier in the movie predates Cary Grant at Grand Central station in Hitch’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Chris tries to get quick cash on a coat but the pawnshop owner gets suspicious and gets on a phone in the next room. While he pretends he is only calling a potential buyer rather than the authorities, Chris knows better. Outside the window, a cop is questioning Robbie why he isn’t in school. Like Cary’s Roger, he is not waiting around to find out what happens next.

The film’s conclusion

TB: What about the end of the movie?

JL: Love those shots of gulls flapping past herring boats, symbolizing Chris’ need to literally… fly away.

TB: The final sequence of HUNTED is very visual. The long tracking shot at the end where he brings Robbie up from the boat while the crowd and the police are swarming along the dock is certainly memorable. And things are left unresolved in a way– will Robbie go back to live with his adoptive parents, or will he be placed in a new home? What will happen to Chris and his wife?

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TB: Also, will Chris’ brother ever acknowledge him? There are a few plot threads dangling, which makes us wonder what happens next. It’s a great movie, and it gives us so much to consider.

HUNTED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: Play for Today- Home Sweet Home (1982)

There’s something about Mike Leigh’s work that stays with you. I am not sure if it’s because the characters are simple, and the situations are anything but simple. Or if it’s because despite the contrivances of the plot, the characters are still living out a solemn existence. And in this case, solemn is anything but boring.

The story focuses on three postal workers in Hertforshire who do the same mundane job day in and day out. Two are married (not to each other) and the third one, whose wife left him, is sleeping with both his coworkers’ wives. What I like about the way this unfolds is how Leigh tells us right away that one of the affairs is occurring, but we do not know there is a second affair going on at the same time until halfway into the story. Gordon and Harold (Timothy Spall and Tim Barker), the unsuspecting husbands, don’t find out their wives (Kay Stonham and Su Elliott) are unfaithful with their oversexed coworker Stan (Eric Richard) until near the end of the story.

Woven into this is the fact that Stan’s teen daughter (Lorraine Brunning) is in foster care and a bubbly social worker (Frances Barber) is trying to help the daughter return home to live with Stan. The social worker is an unrealistic do-gooder who says “super” every thirty seconds and glosses over the problems in Stan’s life as well as the fact that Tina, the daughter, is still quite emotionally unstable.

It’s all rather depressing yet fascinating. Tina is allowed to spend a weekend with her father and while she’s at home, she learns about Stan’s affairs. She discovers her father’s lecherous behavior at the same time that Gordon and Harold find out what Stan’s been up to behind their backs. We’re not meant to pity Stan but rather to feel sorry for the people that Stan screws over; and in some ways, Tina is getting screwed over too because Stan’s no model of stability for her to come home to. 

The dialogue in this telefilm is crafted in a “natural” way that we feel like we’re listening to real dysfunctional conversations. We’re supposed to realize that all these people are trapped in some sort of unhappy working class environment. And we are also supposed to realize that none of society’s solutions work for these people. Honesty leads to heartbreak; friendship leads to betrayal; childcare leads to alienation; intervention leads to disaster; and night leads to another day of misery. The film ends after Stan’s been found out, shortly after he speaks to a new social worker (Lloyd Peters) about Tina’s mental health. Stan doesn’t seem to be thrilled with the idea of having to continue dealing with the court-appointed over-educated imbecile; or having to appear sincere in a conversation about how to fix Tina’s problems. We then cut to a shot of Tina wandering around outside a group home in a lost state. 

It’s not a feel-good ending at all. But in a way you do feel good after watching this story, because you realize that your own problems pale in comparison to what’s just been depicted on screen.

Essential: PSYCHO (1960)

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Based on Ed Gein

Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece was in all likelihood inspired by the serial killings of Ed Gein. However, PSYCHO does not use Gein’s name and many fictionalized elements have been added.

With the end of the production code in sight, Hitchcock probably felt he could take certain liberties. He knew stories about grisly murderers captured the public’s attention.

Although I had heard of the film during my youth, I didn’t see Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO for the first time until my Freshman year in college. It was while taking an introductory film course. An assignment required students to analyze the shots of the shower scene.

The purpose of the assignment was to learn how the director had devised a “formula” for horror through storyboarding and editing. As a result, I became very familiar with what is probably the most famous “action” sequence in motion picture history.

Shot by shot analysis

It starts with Marion Crane in the bathroom. She is showering, when her attacker enters. The knife slashes down for the very first time. Then, it is raised again.

Marion’s body has water splashing down it, partially obscured by the intruder’s shadowy arm. Marion realizes she is being attacked; instinctively, she begins to fend off the intruder. There’s a close-up of the knife striking her three more times.

As the knife slices towards her, Marion turns away. She is recoiling and confused. The knife comes into clear focus. Water bounces off the metal blade. We see Marion’s body. There is no blood, but it is implied that she is receiving the fatal wound.

Marion looks entranced, as if she is dreaming. But she knows she’s really dying. There’s a reverse angle of the door, and the knife slashing. Then, we see Marion’s face. She is in agony. Blood drips down her legs, and Marion turns herself away. There’s a slightly wider shot of Marion with the knife reappearing. Causing a greater flow of blood. Then a flash of the bare tile wall. Marion’s bloody hand is seen. She is still turned away.

We then get a shot of the intruder exiting.

It looks like a woman wearing a long dress. Marion is still pressed against the white tile. She manages to turn herself back around. She begins to slide down slowly with outstretched arm, as she loses her grip on life.

Her body is still sliding down the shower wall. She’s alive and conscious but her eyes are now glazed. She looks forward and her arm remains outstretched. Her hand grasps the curtain. Marion holds on to the curtain for dear life. But she begins to pull the curtain down with her. The curtain is unable to bear her weight and it rips away from the supporting bar. The hooks are popping, one at a time.

Then Marion’s arm falls, followed by her head and torso.


I soon memorized the shower sequence forward and backward. When you go that deep with it, you start to think Marion Crane is real, that she is your own personal cadaver! Actually it feels like you are being shown how to violate a woman, and I think that is a bit of what Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano intended.

The poetic, less scientific part of your brain sees her as a doomed creature. You think to yourself, if only she hadn’t stolen the money or left Phoenix.

Friday afternoon in Phoenix

It was Friday afternoon in Phoenix. Marion Crane was meeting her lover Sam Loomis at a hotel. Sam had a lot of debt, and until he was more financially secure, he wouldn’t be able to marry Marion.

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After their romantic rendezvous, Marion went back to the real estate office where she worked. Her boss was a man named George Lowery. Mr. Lowery was meeting with an oil tycoon. The tycoon told Marion he was purchasing a house for his daughter and paying for it with cash. Mr. Lowery became concerned about leaving $40,000 in the office over the weekend, so he asked Marion to take it to the bank. Then Marion was free to go home afterward.

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Instead of going to the bank, Marion just went straight home. She decided to keep the money for herself. She stuffed it into her purse and packed a suitcase. Then she got on the highway and drove out of Phoenix. She drove and drove until she was so tired, she was forced to pull over. Marion soon fell asleep on a lonely stretch of road.

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She was awakened the next morning by a highway patrolman. The officer seemed suspicious of her behavior, but then let her go.

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Marion feared he might remember her, so she stopped at a used car lot to trade in her vehicle for a different one. Later, as she continued to drive along the California highway, she found herself caught in a fierce storm. Marion then missed the turnoff to Sam’s place and ended up stopping at a quaint little motel. The charming proprietor welcomed her and offered to fix her dinner.

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Jlewis wrote:

This essential needs no introduction since it has been discussed almost as much as CITIZEN KANE by the literary elite, despite most not considering it the “greatest,” even for director Alfred Hitchcock. It is one of those key mass-appeal hits that you pretty much remember where you were when you first watched it. I was roughly 12 and stayed up until midnight to catch it on TV, since that was the only time it was permitted on the air-waves. This was still before home video and also before PSYCHO II.

Also…roughly the same time…I saw JAWS on TV and, yes, I do need to mention both titles in comparison here because they were two that I greatly avoided as a child, being ominously tied by a shocking music score played during grisly murder scenes: PSYCHO had Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins and JAWS had John Williams’ slowly accelerating train-like “approaching danger” theme. (Trivia note: Williams was initially considered to score PSYCHO II but Jerry Goldsmith took over on that one.) My parents saw the former in theaters the summer before they became seniors in high school while the latter was seen by my fellow elementary school students fifteen summers later but, as much as I loved sharks, I was very much afraid of them.

When I finally got to it, JAWS wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be, although I was genuinely riveted by all of the suspense leading up to the rather silly scene when the mechanical “Bruce” chomped at Robert Shaw. As for PSYCHO, I considered parts in the second half a trifle dull (too much Vera Miles and John Gavin) and so much of the overall “feel” being rather dated, but the shower killing still forced me to close my eyes at first viewing. Later I realized that it was all clever editing and we don’t even see the knife touch any skin. Supposedly chocolate sauce was used for “blood.” Yet there is no question which film is better, so I have returned to it many more times than JAWS.

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As I suggest, PSYCHO does have various flaws but they do not make it any less entertaining and re-watchable. For example, as much as I adore Janet Leigh and everything she appears in, even I will admit that a younger actress with more adolescent anxiety would have been better suited to this role as Marion Crane since she tends to be too practical and maternal in her roles for one to believe she would abruptly steal money and escape…only to another state! Then again, I always felt the “hot money” part was just a gimmick to get her “on the run” and make Sheriff Chambers (played by the great radio voice John McIntire of Suspense fame) show at least some interest in her disappearance when boyfriend Sam (boring but picture-perfect John Gavin) and sister Lila (feisty Vera Miles) seek his help.

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No question that Lila cared passionately for her sister in an overly protective way; Vera Miles repeated her role in PSYCHO II and was quite forceful in making sure justice is maintained against Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in that one.

One reason Hitch was so successful as a director and producer is that he would recycle what worked well in one film and improve upon the idea in a future one. Examples: his following up on the Statue of Liberty’s climax in SABOTEUR with the even more exciting Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, while one can easily see the menacing look of Norman Bates’ stuffed birds, including crows, in this feature as a teaser of THE BIRDS to come.

With VERTIGO, he played with a two part structure, spoiling the plot midway through but allowing us to follow Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty unravel it himself. Part one involves Madeleine, who dies tragically and puts Jimmy in the mental ward temporarily (listening to Beethoven), while part two involves Judy (also played by Kim Novak) whom Scotty eventually realizes is the same person…and she dies tragically as well. I think one reason this film was one of Hitch’s less successful efforts (initially, although now it is a critical darling) was due to the mystery angle being spoiled too early.

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Therefore, PSYCHO repeats the 2 Part structure but makes sure that we the viewers merely think we are spoiled by almost-but-not-quite seeing “mother” doing it, leaving plenty of mystery regarding “mother” (always carefully obscured as in that wonderful overhead tracking shot of Norman taking her down the stairs to the fruit cellar even though she is…obvious spoiler…not struggling at all!) and provides us with one of those great gotcha endings that benefits, once again, by Bernard Herrmann’s explosive orchestra music over “The End.” There is little question that moviegoers in that summer of 1960, the last of eight tranquil summers of the Eisenhower Era, left the theater feeling they saw something so exciting and entertaining that, like your favorite amusement park ride, you just had to go back and experience it all over again (at 69 cents for matinee showings).


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Part 1 is all about Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. She has worked at the real estate firm for ten years, living with her sister. John Gavin’s Sam is the man she wants and, despite being divorced, he refuses to marry her on account of money issues. At this time, it was still customary for men to be providers and this potential provider is still paying off alimony checks to his ex-wife which Marion says she is willing to lick the envelopes and stamps for. When the greasy Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) purchases an expensive house for his daughter…who gets to be married, something that Marion longs for…he leaves her with a wad of cash that she is instructed to put in the bank deposit.

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As hinted already, I do have a few issues with her abrupt decision to become a thief who violates a decade of her boss’ confidence just to “provide for” Sam, but…this is a movie about passionate sexual urges and Marion, like Norman, has these urges that must need to be satisfied! (Key line later applying more to Norman but relating to Marion as well: “These were crimes of passion, not profit.”) Maybe, she is thinking she could force Sam to marry her more quickly this way and then return the money?

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At the close of Part 1, she meets Norman (Anthony Perkins) who resembles her in many ways, both feeling they have stepped into a trap they can’t get out of…and, yet, Marion is suddenly optimistic that she can return back to Arizona and settle her trap after her meaningful talk with the sweet Norman.

Then we get the shower scene. Now that I finally saw THE LODGER (1927), I realize that Janet Leigh was not the first Hitch lady to smile as she lathers up bathroom soap on her arms. The stuff of Irish Spring commercials.

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Part 2 is focused on Norman after he meticulously cleans up after Mother. (Marion cleaned herself already just before her death but Norman has to clean up the chocolate sauce.)

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We later learn from the sheriff that Mother has been technically “dead” for ten years, the same amount of time a frustrated Marion has worked for the real estate office. (Some acute observers have noted that Marion’s mother is also mentioned as deceased and, like Norman, she feels “judged” years later for everything she does…cue Sam’s joke about turning her picture at Lila and Marion’s home to the wall.) Like Marion (prior to meeting Sam), Norman hasn’t experienced much of a sex life and has no counterpart to Sam in female form.

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Although there is one more official death, that of investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam), Norman kinda-sorta dies at the end of the film. Not physically, but mentally as Mother takes full control of his mind. Unraveling all of the mysteries in the Scotty role are Sam and sister Lila, with our customary shrink (Simon Oakland, a familiar guest in a few TWILIGHT ZONE shows) giving a nice windy explanation in the final reel about everything that is not quite “normal” about Norman.

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Speaking about Dr. Richmond’s diagnosis, this film is somewhat, if not totally, progressive for its time in that it makes a distinction between Norman’s cross dressing (being due to Mother and Mother = Murder in this story) and those who cross-dress because that is the gender they identify as or, as the good chain-smoking doctor coughs out, for “sexual satisfaction.” In other words, there is nothing specifically “wrong” with cross-dressing in itself except, perhaps, individuals like Sam not being comfortable with it.

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This film is a fascinating time capsule on sexual mores of the times, since it arrived the same year as The Pill and before the hippy revolution and all that came after. I think one reason why the 1998 update was unsuccessful is because it was much harder to believe such characters would be so suppressed in the ’90s (since the setting in the remake was updated to present time). Plus Vince Vaughan is too confident in his heterosexuality to play his Norman all that effectively as Anthony Perkins did back in the day when he was constantly questioning his own sexuality, even if his character is supposedly heterosexual but still a virgin due to Mother. 

Marion feels shameful about using hotel rooms with Sam and, yes, there was still a taboo at that time for women especially having sex before marriage. When the wife of the sheriff (Lurene Tuttle, another great radio “voice” appearing on screen) discusses the reported story of Mrs. Bates’ death by suicide (not really) ten years ago, she lowers her voice to say that Mrs. Bates and her lover “were in bed” as if that was so much more shocking than the death itself.

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Some viewers psychoanalyzing this film have considered Marion’s sister as either a lesbian or merely asexual, since we don’t get any sense that she has ever been interested in men like Marion is interested in Sam and it is suggested that she is a bit older than Marion. This also reflected an innocent bygone time when families tended to stick together much more frequently, but sometimes in a negative way as to stiffen an individual’s need for freedom.

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One scene that humors me involves Marion’s co-worker Caroline (Pat Hitchcock, the director’s daughter) commenting on both her husband checking on her and her mother checking up on her husband so that the whole family is fully “supervised.”

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For a film all about peep holes and sexual secrets, the famous animator and graphic designer Saul Bass provides us with one of his greatest and simplest opening title sequences to prep us. Note how the simple lines running from one end of the screen to the other morph into the credits, then break up shockingly in tune to Herrmann’s shocking music score to suggest we are in for 109 minutes of shocks galore. They also resemble the hotel blinds that we “peep” through to see Marion and Sam in states of undress barely a minute after the title sequence.

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Lots of interesting tidbits are presented twice. We have two shocking stab scenes. Marion changes two cars, the ’57 Ford ending up in the swamp with her corpse. Also she has two bras, the one in the beginning is white and the one after she steals the money is black. Two visits by investigator Arbogast to Norman’s mother makes sure there is not a third visit. Two references to humans not wanting to harm insects; first, in a scene with a customer reading a bottle of insecticide at Sam’s hardware store and later Mother saying she would not hurt a fly.

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There are a lot of cinematic visual delights peppered throughout, but I need to point out a few in the first half in particular. Although I may be a trifle skeptical of what Marion does since it does not fit Janet Leigh’s rather distinctive personality, it is all choreographed brilliantly. I especially love how she conjures up “voices” as she drives, imagining the various outcomes of her deed and constantly questioning herself “why am I doing this?”

Janet is a brilliant actress here whom all of us who have never once stole a wad of bubble gum from a pharmacy can easily relate to. I also love how she is so cautious at the used car dealer, but also forgetting her case when she is hastily trying to pull out. Also a brilliant touch is to show the cop checking on her wearing the darkest sunglasses imaginable.

While one can nitpick certain details that seem dated by today’s standards, this is representative of a director who had been working in the movie business for almost four decades and was at his creative zenith. Like Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille, he knew exactly what the public wanted. Everything about this film knits together as a perfect fabric and continues to fascinate no matter how many times you view it.

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Essential: THE LODGER (1944)

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TopBilled wrote:

I was unaware of director John Brahm and his filmography before watching this version. It does not surprise me that he directed Laird Cregar a year later in 20th Century Fox’s similarly themed HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) where once more we have a killer on the loose in Victorian England with Cregar again playing the bad guy.

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I think I should get this observation out of the way, immediately: I find Laird Cregar a fascinating and highly competent performer but I do not think he has a handle on these types of characters. My biggest gripe with Cregar in villain mode, at least in this version of the Jack the Ripper tale, is that he is playing the lodger too ambitiously. It feels like he is giving an operatic performance in the middle of a country and western tune. That’s the analogy I have for this, he’s not exactly hamming it up but he is definitely overacting the part.

Speaking of opera, I think he would have been perfect in Universal’s 1943 remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. That’s the type of story that does require an over-the-top quality and daresay camp. But Cregar is trying to reach impossible heights with the lodger role that simply are not to be found in the story, or if those lofty points of the character are suggested, they are not meant to be fully explored. A wise actor would have erred on the side of subtlety and kept some of the pathos muted.

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It sounds strange my complaining about an actor who is certainly giving a competent performance but I think he has a different view of how the material is meant to be played, opposed to what the writers have intended. This is not a grand character in any sense. He’s a low-life reprobate who gets kicks out of tormenting and destroying women. Vulnerable women.

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Okay moving on from Cregar, I think Cedric Hardwick is the wrong choice for the male home owner Robert Bonting. He’s too high class and this part requires a middle class character type. Some of Hardwicke’s diction is just too polished and I cannot believe him in the role. Barry Fitzgerald would have been my choice.

On the other hand, I think Sara Allgood is a vast improvement over Marie Ault in the 1927 version and she is also better than what Frances Bavier manages in the 1953 production.

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As landlady Ellen Bonting, Allgood exhibits all the right mannerisms, she feels like a middle class woman and she also has a convincing accent (which Bavier lacks in MAN IN THE ATTIC). I also like Allgood’s rapport with Merle Oberon who plays her niece.

They’ve changed the name of the niece from Daisy in the British version to Kitty in this first American version. However, they recycled the name Daisy for the family maid. Merle Oberon does look like a refined Kitty cat, and she fits her role purr-fectly.

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Oberon does an admirable job with the song-and-dance numbers during the scenes that take place in the theater, even if it is obvious her singing voice is dubbed. In short Oberon conveys the sort of coquettishness and energy her role requires. She gets on well with Allgood and has palpable chemistry with George Sanders, who sometimes in his other films is too proper to do justice with romantic storylines. That’s not the case here, thank goodness.

Sanders plays the copper. As I stated last week, the police investigator character does not turn up until a third of the way into this movie. It is a good thing since it means we have to focus on Kitty’s relationship with her aunt and uncle at home, as well as all of them interacting with the new lodger (Cregar). Oberon and Cregar share zero sexual chemistry, which is not Oberon’s fault. There should definitely be heat underneath the daily routines and exchanges between Kitty and Mr. Slade the lodger. But that is absent.

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This version of the story adds in a bit of forensic science. Inspector John Warwick (Sanders) is trying to connect Slade to the murders by lifting fingerprints from objects that Slade has touched in the room he’s renting. Some of the dialogue is a bit expository, explaining to 1944 audiences what collecting forensic evidence entails. But I did like this added into the plot since it increases realism and shows how a policeman might logically prove who the culprit is.

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The lodger’s motives change in this telling. He is no longer innocent like Ivor Novello was back in 1927, nor is he trying to avenge a sister’s death. This time he’s off kilter because his brother was ruined by a showgirl. We are not given a full explanation of how the brother’s demise occurred by knowing a showgirl, but because the woman was supposedly so corrupt, Slade is now out to get all showgirls. In some ways this is laughable nonsense. The 1953 version with Jack Palance does a much better job explaining the lodger’s psychosis and includes some Freudian analysis of Slade which is much needed.

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The costuming is exquisite throughout this production. But I found the set design not as good I hoped it would be. One of the problems I had with the sets is that they seemed like warehouse areas on the 20th Century Fox lot. For instance, the downstairs of the Bonting home is a little too spacious for middle-class folk. And the lodger’s quarters have high walls with too much space to walk around the furniture. An upstairs room in a modest city home would not look like this. The attic upstairs where Slade does his “experiments” would be even smaller. So I don’t think the set designer was correct in these aspects.

The studio warehouse feel is even more prevalent in the final sequence where Slade is chased by the inspector and the inspector’s men through the backstage area of the theater. But my goodness this theater seems to go on and on, with all kinds of stairwells and platforms and windows that Slade has at his disposal in a magnificent attempt to thwart capture. To be honest, the chase felt a bit dragged out, even if Cregar’s final closeup and his smashing through a glass window make up for it.

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Jlewis wrote:

We are backtracking to the Victorian Age and Whitechappel with the actual Jack the Ripper instead of the “Avenger” running loose for this adaptation of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ story. The 20th Century Fox art department don’t get all of the details historically accurate, but I do feel that Fox had the best recreations of England and London in particular. They always made sure that they incorporated many actual British stars in such productions so there was always a consistency in accents.

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This shares certain aspects in common with the earlier Hitch film, but differs with its ending. First we get the new lodger Mr. Slade (Laid Cregar) requesting that the ladies portraits get removed from his room, as in Hitch’s version. Miss Kitty (Merle Oberon), instead of Daisy, is the primary damsel in distress here, being the niece rather than the daughter of room renters, the Bontings (Sara Allgood & Cedric Hardwicke). She is also a very successful stage actress and a brunette, but does not become Slade’s love interest even if he develops an obsession for her later. (Oh… we do get a maid called Daisy, played by Queenie Leonard.)

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Apart from Oberon and Cregar, the other big billed star here is George Sanders as Inspector John (or Jonathan as the other character in Hitch’s film was called) Warwick and he has no romantic interest in the star lady.

Filmed in August-October 1943, roughly the same period as Paramount’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY and MINISTRY OF FEAR, this was part of the great “film noir” boom when all three were released in 1944, emphasizing psychological “demons” in humankind and lots of low-key lighting.

Such films had been around for a while and one would consider Hitch’s THE LODGER as another key example from the earlier decades, but you do see a jump in films resembling these from 1943 (6 features listed at Wikipedia) to ’44 (23). I guess we should properly label THE LODGER a half-noir since it has many standard daytime scenes of a hardly cloudy London (that California sun is mighty bright) and reserves shots of Laid Cregar in stark silhouette and ominous shadows for the indoor shots and nighttime streets.

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One other curio: Fox wasn’t sure if it should turn this into a musical or not, since we get Oberon as Kitty doing two lavish, if short, musical numbers; not that the dramatic actress could ever become the next Alice Faye.

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I have to praise the impressive tracking shots that open it as we see a drunk patron of the pub make her short trip back home around the corner and…does not make it once she walks around a corner, quite literally. We hear her talk to somebody (“Who are you?”) and then scream.

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Although I consider the later murder of Jenny (Doris Lloyd) much more effective and shocking, all of these opening shots are still pretty impressive with the cameras held steady and positioned from a perched pigeon’s point of view. Other memorable scenes here are those of police looking for the killer, again from a high angle and with some nice Caligari-like zigzag compositions that reflect the unsettled state of London’s city-scape mentality.

The screenplay by Barre Lyndon is adequate, as is the cast, but I suspect that the German-born director John Brahm and key cinematographer Lucien Ballard were having much more fun with the visuals than the story. So many freeze-frames make interesting photo art.  Especially love the brief scene of Mr. Slade greeting Kitty (dialogue: “You didn’t mind my sending you the little note, did you?” / “I was glad to have it…”) with his arm and body at the door creating a triangle arch way engulfing her as she files her nails all flirtatiously.

I was instantly reminded of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE decades later with Mrs. Robinson’s legs looking just as menacing over an equally suffocated Benjamin.

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Also great are the mirrors reflecting four Slaters on screen as he menacingly talks to Kitty in a later scene. Love that final zoom-in to actor Laid Cregar’s face as he breaths heavily before his final leap.

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Spoiler alert: Mr. Slade is not Jack the Ripper, as confirmed by Inspector John’s fingerprint analysis. Kitty doesn’t consider him threatening at all until his personality turns Hyde-ish rather abruptly in one, in my opinion, over-acted scene that has little foreshadowing. Slade is very disturbed with a brotherly love loss that is funneled into a hostility towards beautiful women, a fascinating angle that I wish was developed further on screen. Therefore, he must be punished by getting shot and falling into the Thames. Cue the following dialogue:

  • Kitty: He said deep water was restful, full of peace. The river drew him, even in the end.
  • Inspector John: The river sweeps the city clean.
  • Kitty: Carries things out to sea and they sink in deep water.

Despite some flaws, I actually favored this version over Hitch’s silent one. The many memorable camera angles and artsy compositions sell it to me.

Essential: THE LODGER (1927)

TopBilled wrote:

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THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927) is based on Marie Lowndes’ 1913 novel, The Lodger, which is a fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper murders. The Lowndes source material would also be used for 20th Century Fox’s sound version, THE LODGER (1944) and its subsequent remake MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953).

I felt the initial scenes were too slow. It took a while for the story to get underway. Initially the focus seemed to be placed on some blonde-haired girls performing at a local nightclub.

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One of the girls– Daisy– lives in a house where a mysterious lodger takes up residence. But first we are treated to some cute romantic nonsense involving Daisy and a policeman cutting out heart-shaped cookie dough in the kitchen.

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Now why did I have a problem with this? Because it unnecessarily delays the arrival of the lodger. In this version the lodger is not a villain. Gasp! He gets the girl in the end. So why even spend time on the girl with the copper? Probably because Hitchcock intended the lodger to be the killer, and for the girl to end up with the copper.

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The producers of the film were against the idea of featuring Ivor Novello as a villain. Hitchcock had already cast the popular stage and screen star in the main role. Now he was required to make the lodger innocent and someone else the killer. Moreover, he had to make Novello’s character a romantic hero who gets the girl. These changes went against the early set-up for the story. Also the romanticizing of the lodger is at odds with all those creepy expressionistic images of him.

If he’s going to be a lovable bloke in the end, why the dark shadowy treatment of him walking up and down the stairs and pacing back and forth in his room?

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Incidentally, the policeman does not show up until almost the half-hour mark in the 1944 version, which I think is smarter. We need to see the local environment, the streets and the housing, then become familiar with the family and their new lodger before a cop even turns up at the house. Of course we know murders are occurring and a serial killer is at large. But it should be secondary in the beginning, so we get to know the family and why the lodger decides to stay there. Or why they even take him in at all.

A lot of the acting in the silent version is hammy, which is unfortunate. I think Hitch is trying his best to make it cinematic. There are some clever and innovative ideas at play, like images of a swaying chandelier seen in a footprint.

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As well as a unique shot of Novello’s character pacing the floor, obviously walking on glass at an angle, so the camera can film it underneath.

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I love these touches. But for every cool gimmick Hitchcock devises, the actors pull it down with their outrageously melodramatic style of acting that is devoid of realism and any true feeling of terror, which the story so desperately requires.

Novello has great eyes and lips, and his closeups are fantastic. He’s prettier than his leading lady. In fact he’s so mesmerizing that it’s a shame he wasn’t allowed to play the villain and really suck us into the story properly.

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The actor cast as the investigating cop is wearing too much stage makeup in most of his scenes which pulls me out of why he’s in the scenes. He seems like an actor, not a copper portrayed by an actor. And due to the heavy makeup and expressionistic camerawork, the cop sometimes looks like a villain. Perhaps that was intentional on Hitch’s part?

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Oh, the motive for the lodger’s strange behavior…? In this 1927 version we are informed that he’s there to avenge his sister’s death at the hands of the killer. How he seems to be one step ahead of the police the whole time is not ever explained. But he has newspaper clippings, and we can assume his sister was a blonde since the victims are all blondes. In relation to some of Hitchcock’s usual themes, Novello’s character is falsely accused of being the killer. He is pursued in a dramatic chase scene near the end which features him trying to climb a wrought iron fence still wearing handcuffs and being clawed at by an angry mob.

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Ironically, the killer (called The Avenger instead of The Ripper) is nabbed off screen. The Avenger is associated with an image of a triangle. We never see what the real culprit looks like. But Novello’s lodger is now exonerated and free to be with the girl. There’s a happy ending which is what the studio wanted. This reminds me of how Hitch was forced to change the ending of SUSPICION (1941) when RKO execs were leery of having Cary Grant play a villain. Both these films have what I would call unrealistic happiness at the end.

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One last thing I want to add before we go on to Jlewis’ comments tomorrow is that silent films are very repetitive. By this I mean the scenes have endless variations, where certain motifs are repeated to remind the viewer that someone is scared, or someone is scary. That someone is in danger, or someone is causing danger. Such repetition stretches out a film’s length but also assures audiences they saw what they saw and there is no mistaking how something is occurring on screen. Directors don’t make movies like this anymore.

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Jlewis wrote:

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This is the most famous of the Hitchcock silents, predating his first “talkie” BLACKMAIL. Most of the others are not terribly Hitchcockian. I’ve seen a few, most notably THE RING (featured on a LionsGate’s DVD set that I have) which is a highly entertaining boxing drama but hardly different than other boxing dramas and not what you would define as a “Hitchcock film.” Of course, THE LODGER is among the first focusing on Hitch’s trademark subject of interest…muwrder…and even has the first of his legendary cameo appearances.

Previewed September 16, 1926, it was not officially released throughout the UK until February 14, 1927. Supposedly producer Michael Balcon was not being happy with it and Hitch’s career almost ended as soon as it was beginning.

It showcases some of the classic German Expressionistic style, reminding me a bit of the later PANDORA’S BOX with another Jack the Ripper sub-story of sorts incorporated in a melodrama featuring Louise Brooks. Such films featured plenty of dark atmospheric lighting. Although associated mostly with the 1940s and ’50s, the so-called “film noir” was popular for a while in the 1920s when the rival German film industry greatly impacted both Hollywood and the British film studios simultaneously.

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Alfred Hitchcock himself spent some time with the German studios and brought what he learned back home, while Hollywood studios like Paramount and Fox got Josef von Sternberg and F. W. Murnau, among others. Murnau had considerable influence on Hitch and it shows with THE LODGER.

Although the basis of the story is the famous Jack the Ripper killing spree of 1898, we are updated to the twenties here with all the cars and fashions. The killer is now the “Avenger” and actually does get captured (although we never see him), favoring ladies with blonde hair (and we all know how blondes are favored in Hitch films). The show girls at “Golden Curls” are all naturally scared for their lives, even if one makes a joke of the popular news stories.

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The first frame after main titles shows a woman up close screaming, followed by police and onlookers, plus an upset older lady witness, all surrounding a body at the scene of the crime. We learn key details of the crime with a montage of telegraph print outs and printing press images– “murder: fresh from the press” as well as radio promoting further “murder: hot over the aerial.” The visuals are so effective that just having a synchronized music score is enough to satisfy you since you can “hear” in your mind all that is happening here.

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A mysterious border arrives for…is it Room number 13? The actor Ivor Novello as the mysterious Jonathan resembles a young Frederic March in my mind. In a curious move, he requests all of the pictures of blonde girls and a semi-nude removed by the matron Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault).

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Hearing about this, the neighborhood cop Joe (Malcolm Keen) quips to his blonde girlfriend Daisy (June Tripp), daughter of the Buntings, “I’m glad he’s not keen on girls.” For modern viewers seeking some commentary on “orientation,” obviously not intentional for a film of this vintage, we also get Mrs. Bunting later admitting in title cards that “he is a bit queer.”

However, I do wonder if Hitch & company are still possibly having a few laughs about “straight”-laced society and their gender roles. Arthur Chesney plays Mr. Bunting and what I find most amusing about him is that he is usually seen reading the newspaper, reporting the murder news stories and the like, while Mrs. Bunting does all of the housework. Ditto Joe who is never really shown working but just socializing with the family and getting all jealous of Jonathan when he sports the more competitive Joe College sweater when in embrace with his lil’ woman.

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If both Joe and her parents work hard to distract Daisy from the “queer” resident, it doesn’t work. Likewise, he becomes as smitten with her as she is with him. We the viewers do, on cue, start questioning his motives occasionally as we see close-up shots of his hands grabbing sharp objects during a key chess game between the two.

Throughout we get plenty of gimmick shots of interest that, of course, reference many Hitch flix of later decades. Most impressive is Jonathan’s pacing about the room that impacts the ceiling light below and is presented with a glass shot of his feet above you in double exposure. Close-ups of his shoes in action resemble the early shots in STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN. The VERTIGO-ish stairway shots also look familiar.

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A bathtub instead of a shower (PSYCHO) is featured as Daisy disrobes at one point, with steam keeping her all innocent on screen while she enjoys washing her arms much like Janet Leigh does later. Close-ups of Jonathan and Daisy kissing foreshadow REAR WINDOW in their sensuality.

More importantly, the overall premise is one that Hitch replayed often: a man is accused of crimes that he must prove his innocence of. Also we get a woman who loves him and stands by his side. Hitch wasn’t terribly fond of the police and we have a main character here who lets jealousy impact his sense of justice and, predictably, arresting Jonathan doesn’t bring Daisy back to him.

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In more true silent melodrama fashion, we get the familiar flashbacks of a dying mother getting her son to bring the real Avenger to justice because, well, you need a mother in many of these for a noble son to be devoted to. Many films of the era also made subtle reference to Peal White with some cliffhanger action in the end: in this case, we see Jonathan handcuffed to a gate as a mob arrives to terrorize him.

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Overall, this holds up pretty well even if some modern viewers will obviously favor much later Hitch. This was a director testing the waters in a burgeoning genre that had yet to be his trade-mark. It also has a pretty standard happy ending, as our title-card reads “All stories have an end.”

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The story was popular as a radio adaptation over the years, although the plots changed quite a bit and only the title was consistent. One of these even had Alfred Hitchcock’s participation, if indirectly rather than directly since CBS had an impostor portray him on the air. My guess is that he was too busy with FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT’s post-production at the time, but was perfectly fine having his name promoted . This pilot show for the two decade run of Suspense was aired as part of CBS’s Forecast on July 22, 1940 and, like this film, mentions the novel author Mrs. Belloc Lowndes:

From what I have read online, Hitch made two attempts to redo this film during the succeeding two years, but there were struggles obtaining the rights…struggles that 20th Century Fox successfully overcame. Curiously Hitch wasn’t involved with this version, perhaps because he was busy making LIFEBOAT for that same studio instead.

Essential Small Screen Noir: The Streets of San Francisco

TB: For the next four weeks Jlewis and I will be reviewing classic episodes of the 1970s police procedural drama The Streets of San Francisco. These may not be the best ones produced, depending on your opinion, but they are quite memorable.

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Overseen by Quinn Martin, The Streets of San Francisco ran on ABC-network television from 1972 to 1977. The first four seasons costarred veteran character actor Karl Malden alongside young Michael Douglas, with Malden getting top billing. The fifth and final season saw Douglas’ character written out in a special two-part episode (Douglas had recently earned an Oscar and was wanting to concentrate solely on feature films), with Richard Hatch taking over the sidekick cop role. We will cover two episodes with Malden & Douglas this month; as well as two episodes with Malden & Hatch.

To get things started, I have selected what tends to be regarded as the most famous episode of the show. It was originally broadcast on Thursday night October 3, 1974. According to the wiki description:

“A professional female impersonator (John Davidson) whose intense identification with one of the women he mimics — a fictitious 1930s movie star — creates an uncontrollable split personality and eventually leads to murder.” Key supporting players include Herb Edelman and Marianne McAndrew while John Fiedler and Bernie Kopell appear in minor roles.


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Mask of Death

Part 1 of 2

TB: As I wrote in the above introduction this Season 3 offering, with singer-actor John Davidson playing a female impersonator, is rather well-known. During the story, he does impressions of Katharine Hepburn and Carol Channing. He’s very funny, and he’s a great singer so the numbers he performs are spectacular. The character has a tragic side, a very tragic side. It is shocking how well Davidson does with such a complex and villainous yet sympathetic character.

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There are numerous references to old Hollywood in this story, since Davidson’s  impressionist character Ken Scott draws inspiration from a dead movie star of the late 1930s. Carole Marlowe is obviously a composite based on Carole Lombard. While gimmicky, I would say this give the story added value. Incidentally there is a photo of what is supposed to be the real Carole from 1939, but of course that’s John Davidson made up, with the photo a bit blurred to partially conceal the fact it’s him. We are told the real Carole had daddy issues, and it’s interesting that the first time we see Ken Scott on stage as Carole Marlowe, he/she is singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

JL: I also think of Marlowe as Philip Marlowe, a Raymond Chandler creation made famous in THE BIG SLEEP, FAREWELL MY LOVELY a.k.a. MURDER MY SWEET and THE LONG GOODBYE. Come to think of it, Karl Malden’s hat easily fits Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. The fact that our main leads played by Malden and Michael Douglas think they are initially pursuing an actual woman is also tied with the old Chandler stories with women who could be either side of the fence in crime investigations.

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If you drop the “e” in Carole, you get Carol as in Carol Channing, whom as you mention is impersonated in drag by our lead character…a lot, in fact. Not sure if she performed “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with the key line of “and I know I could never be bad.”

TB: In terms of entertainment value, what did you think of the story? It held my interest throughout, mainly because I was waiting for Malden and Douglas to figure things out. When they first meet Ken Scott, it is to interview him, because he was a party seen talking to one of the murder victims. While they know Ken does a drag show, they don’t know initially that he stayed ahem, in character, to rub off a nice but married businessman (played by former Tarzan Denny Miller).

JL: Yeah, this is a somewhat enjoyable, if highly questionable, episode and I must note that much of its appeal for me comes from the additional guest stars here. Herb Edelman and John Fiedler (a.k.a. Piglet in Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh franchise until his death in 2005) both appeared in Neil Simon’s THE ODD COUPLE and the later ’80s series The Golden Girls, although Fielder in just one episode there.

Oh…there are other photos of interest in Ken Scott’s dressing room. One could be Lombard. I think the other one is Gloria Swanson or a knock-off of her. Yes, old time Hollywood gets referenced a lot and John Fiedler’s dialogue mentions the old car featured in Swanson’s SUNSET BLVD.

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TB: Let’s discuss in a bit more detail how the dualism of John Davidson’s character plays out. We have scenes of Ken Scott trying to turn off Carole Marlowe. But then Carole takes over again. One reviewer on the IMDb felt Davidson was too over the top. But I think it was almost necessary, since Carole Marlowe is supposed to be an extreme being. As evidenced in the nightclub act, everything about Carole is over the top.

JL: In the first shot of “her” face, we are not terribly convinced this impersonator is an actual woman in the opening scenes due to Davidson’s somewhat masculine chin-line and husky voice. I am sure there are women who look like “her,” but the clothes are, yes, “over the top” and the music is presented in a strange, judgmental tone. Interesting that the first victim (Miller’s character Harvey Ross) is a jewelry salesman who is established to be heterosexual with a wife and kids. No kissing involved obviously.

TB: Yes, we see Harvey lean in for a kiss but just as their lips are about to lock, that is when Ken/Carole kills him. Talk about a kiss of death! Of course we don’t know a first what is motivating such a killing.

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JL: Both the actor Ken Scott and the character he plays, Carole Marlowe, are not happy in female disguise. Note how we see, in the big revelation that I already saw coming, how forceful he is in removing the long nails and wig as if it is all too gross for him. We learn more why later. Perhaps a dead actress may be taking over his body? Actually all she did years ago, according to Michael Douglas’ Steve Keller, was commit suicide.

Getting more to the point of Ken the actor borrowing her name, he is a total contrast to those featured in the landmark documentaries THE QUEEN (1968) and PARIS IS BURNING (1990) who genuinely enjoy what they do and incorporate their on-stage characters into their actual personalities with no shame involved. John Davidson’s Ken Scott is very shameful as revealed in his all important mirror scenes. When he suggests murders have been committed, he adds that they were “wrong” but the way he paraphrases it all suggests that his female impersonation is even more “wrong.”

TB: Interesting. Also, he is shifting blame. While his hands actually did the killing, he can assign blame to Carole.

JL: Note too that Ken is billed as an “impressionist.” In the rather curious final scene of the show, that word is removed from the marquee before the name of Ken Scott. Open to some interesting interpretation there.

One scene that made me instantly laugh occurred right after Ken tells his boss/agent Sam (Herb Edelman) that he wants this act to be “over” with and we get our commercial break. We suddenly switch to a swimming pool setting with a no-question-that-she-is-female, Anne Helm’s Bobo Stanfield, in a sexy blue bikini getting her back rub to emphasize a subliminal message of “we are still the TV show that you want us to be.”

One curio is two hunky guys in trunks walking together around the pool that could suggest something otherwise, but I don’t think so in this case since, if you look closely, they separate once a woman joins one of them…and, to make it all more amusing, just about the time that Bobo walks our stars Malden and Douglas’s Mike Stone and Steve Keller around the pool, Douglas glances briefly at the woman who just separated the bro-buddies and almost hits his head under a canopy!

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Back to Ken. He isn’t 100% against all he does on stage even if it is all self critical, quipping “I know my act is a little bit weird (interesting word here) but my nails aren’t” (cue the fact that he has yet to remove them in the same forceful manner we saw previously). Back at the dressing room, we meet his girlfriend Lori (Marianne McAndrew) and get our one and only kiss of the show, all nice and hetero.

TB: I’m glad you mention the hetero kiss. I felt that was probably put into the script, because when it was written, the role hadn’t been cast yet. And in order to get a big name guest star who probably is straight in real life, they can point to this scene and say “hey, the character might be off the wall, but you still get to kiss a girl!”

Incidentally, the trivia section on the IMDb for this episode says Dean Jones was first offered this role but turned it down. Honestly, while Jones could sing and was an above average actor, I don’t think he would have brought the sort of charisma and sex appeal that Davidson brings to it.

JL: John Davidson and Dean Jones have similar sounding voices and the former briefly sports a turtle neck not unlike Dean’s favored one in THE LOVE BUG.

TB: And ironically, both played rather wholesome roles in Disney live action flicks.

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JL: When Lieutenant Stone (Malden) and Inspector Keller (Douglas) arrive at the club to interview him, Ken plays stereotypical “gay” by saying he used to be with the marines (an old joke on William Haines and others with a taste for sailors, as well as Malden’s character referencing one marine later in the episode who had a Carmen Miranda act) until Lori corrects him about them being police-oriented. Then Ken says “Hope you don’t bust me, gentlemen. I’m clean! I’m clean!”

Afterwords…as Stone & Keller head to the car outside the club we get an interesting exchange.

Stone to Keller: Do you have the feeling you just came off another planet?

Keller: That’s show biz.

Stone: Show biz, huh? Well, Maybe I shouldn’t knock it. He plays to full houses every night and we come out empty handed.

TB: I agree the dialogue is fun in this episode, and with a pro like Malden, it is often delivered tongue-in-cheek. Especially in the scene you just referenced. But of course, at this point in the narrative, Stone & Keller haven’t figured out the connection that Ken Scott’s alter ego Carole Marlowe is the culprit they are seeking.

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JL: We are reminded of PSYCHO here. Norman Bates does not “dress like that” because he wants to be female or has any “gay” inclinations. He kills Marion Crane because “mother” made him on account of him “being aroused by her.” You mention Ken’s daddy issues, but I personally feel they didn’t milk that aspect of the story all that well to make it even worth discussing.

Quite often serial killers display alternative personalities in entertainment, which they can easily “turn off” in order to avoid getting caught. The dual personality is ultimately more important than the gender role switching in the long run. One key scene of interest: when Stone & Keller visit Ken a second time and he plays Carol Channing for them in the dressing rom, the real Ken reverts back once they leave and the door closes. “It is like dealing with a three headed monster. You don’t know which head to talk to.” No, Lieutenant Stone, just two.

TB: I’m really enjoying this discussion Jlewis. Tomorrow I will post the rest of our review. In the meanwhile, if any of our readers haven’t seen the episode, it may currently be viewed on YouTube.


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Mask of Death

Part 2 of 2

TB: Yesterday we left off in the middle of a discussion about Mask of Death, a third season episode of the classic crime show The Streets of San Francisco. In the story guest star John Davidson plays a troubled “impressionist” whose alter ego is a killer.

Let’s talk about the pacing of the episode. Lieutenant Stone (Karl Malden) and Inspector Keller (Michael Douglas) spend considerable time investigating the first killing.

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We cut from their investigation to Ken’s stage routines as Carole. It takes awhile (about 18 minutes into the episode) for the two detectives to cross paths with Ken, whom they don’t realize is the killer they’re seeking.

JL: The whole needle part, which is a key suspect item that Steve steals from the dressing room, is well integrated into the murder investigation.

For a brief period in viewing this, I wondered if they were cleverly fooling us viewers into thinking Ken is a killer when he is not. That is, only he himself wonders if he is because maybe he “blacks out” at times when in his Carole Marlowe persona. After all, he has a chauffeur too, played by Ivor Barry (? I think… please correct me), and sometimes the butler or chauffeur is the-one-who-did-it.


TB: Yes, Raymond the butler is played by Welsh actor Ivor Barry.

JL: We do see that the butler is rather eager to leave town. Then, of course, our initial suspicion, along with our lead investigators’ suspicions, prove correct and my reaction is one of…gee, they could have really wowed us here with a great, great “gotcha” ending. Oh well…

TB: Probably the goal of writer Robert Malcolm Young was to connect homicidal impulses with deviant behavior. Raymond the butler is not a so-called deviant. Ken Scott is. For awhile, I thought maybe we’d find out that Sam the manager (Herb Edelman’s character) was behind the murders, that he too dressed up.

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But the story does not go in that direction. However, I think it is vaguely hinted that Sam and Ken may have a more intimate relationship than Stone & Keller realize, despite the fact Ken is in a relationship with a woman (Marianne McAndrew). The woman, Lori, seems to be almost a hanger-on. Clearly Ken can function without her, since he has Sam and Raymond (and Carole Marlowe) to keep him busy!

Okay, let’s change gears a bit. What is your idea about camp as entertainment value? What makes it so entertaining? Especially in regards to the drag routines we see depicted in the episode. Plus the over-the-top stuff where Ken is questioned by Stone & Keller, but keeps falling back into the Carole Marlowe character.

JL: The acts may be labeled “camp” and ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is often labeled the ultimate “camp” movie. However I feel this show is too sinister and serious in its subject matter. You need some humor and, yes, we get it in Davidson’s performance at times since he does enjoy the impersonations.

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Yet “camp” entertainment usually doesn’t suggest that cross dressing is “sick” as it is viewed here.

On the visual side, I should add that the old style mansion setting of Ken’s and all of the curious costumes on display make for great gothic entertainment. Again, like Norman Bates’ house, Ken’s is investigated by Stone & Keller much like Vera Miles’ Lila Crane investigated Norman. Once again, we have Ken jump out like the bogeyman to attack Keller just like Norman Bates did. Note that Ken Scott is only wearing a ladies wig but still has a guy sports-coat on, ready to make his trip to Mexico to escape the law.

Again, for genuine camp entertainment, you are supposed to enjoy the “alternative” aspects of the story. But I don’t think viewers are supposed to enjoy them here. I think a huge slice of the viewing audience in 1974 were not into this kind of set-up like they would be today.

TB: Good point. I agree. And as we mentioned earlier, the hetero kiss is depicted to keep the audience tuned in, so that it is not “too gay” or “too alternative.” If the story was made now, we might not have the hetero kiss, and we would certainly see Ken/Carole kiss the first murder victim. At least that’s what I think.

Going back to how the story is written…does abnormal transformation mean homicide? That’s what the episode’s script writer seems to be suggesting. At one point Ken’s girlfriend Lori tells him: “Think about what you do. Every day you have to masquerade around so perfectly that people can’t tell what sex you are.”

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JL: It is interesting how the women in these shows are the voices that get through to men rather than other men. Is it “abnormal”…? The “transformation”…? Well, if you commit murder, it probably is. Then again, anything you do that is not popular with a mainstream patriarchal society will make you “abnormal” to others.

This episode aired two months before the theatrical release of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (held up in its release for various issues not all related), which also involves a “female impersonator” presented in very suspect terms. The TV episode is better than the movie but the overall message is still muddled despite so much borrowed from PSYCHO here. I mean…on the plus side, the killer is at least “heteronormal” and not “gay” so we have that going for it in terms of social progress.

Sadly, today we are seeing a lot of transgenders as murder victims rather than the other way around. The numbers for 2020 are well above 2019 already even though the year is not over yet, according to The Advocate and other sources bothering to report them. Curious what all was happening back then with all of this ominous profiling in entertainment. Then again, you and I understand that we must accept films and TV shows as products of their time.

TB: True.

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JL: Once again, I must say something positive here about the character of Lieutenant Mike Stone. When Inspector Steve Keller discusses something “kinky” about the old actress Carole Marlowe whom Ken “embodies” as some spiritual take-over in old Hollywood references he is researching, Keller is corrected by Stone with the line of “Don’t believe everything you read on film people. They are human beings like everybody else.’

I also like the character of Sam played by Edelman. He tells Ken he is “nuts” for dropping his stage act because he thinks there is nothing wrong with drag. Why should there be? Entertainers, regardless of how they entertain, are human beings.


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TB: This weekend we are looking at another episode of The Streets of San Francisco which stars Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. This one features guest Dean Stockwell.

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It was produced during the show’s third season. Stockwell is great, at times heartbreaking to watch…he expertly straddles the fence between victim and victimizer and the result is ultimately a very sympathetic character we root for in the end.

The Programming of Charlie Blake was originally broadcast on Thursday night February 6, 1975. According to the wiki description:

“A supposedly reformed sex offender (Dean Stockwell) is being brainwashed by his psychiatrist (William Smithers) into believing he has committed murder.” Key supporting players include Sharon Acker and Lynne Marta. Dee Wallace appears in a minor role.

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Part 1 of 2

TB: Though Dean Stockwell is playing the most important character in this story, we also have a strong performance by William Smithers. During his long career, Smithers often played villains. In this episode, he’s cast as a Svengali-type psychiatrist named Dr. Norman Jessup. As the story unfolds it become very clear that he does not have the well-being of his patient Charlie Blake in mind. In fact he’s going to use Charlie to commit murder.

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We’re not supposed to enjoy a character like this. But I have to admit I sort of do. Mainly because Smithers has such a unique way of making villainy palatable. Of making it seem almost refined. It’s rather fascinating how the “good doctor” is able to control a patient like Charlie Blake for his own nefarious purposes. Wouldn’t you agree?

JL: Dr. Norman Jessup is the classic slick and oily controller we’ve seen many times elsewhere in entertainment like stepmother Lady Tremaine in CINDERELLA and Billy Zane’s Caledon in TITANIC. These personalities are confident that they are God and can control the world. It is not too challenging for them since many in this world would much rather be controlled by others than seek control of themselves.

Note how he makes Charlie feel “dirty.” My guess is that Charlie, who is rather unkempt in appearance and neurotic, has been talked down to all his life and lacks self confidence in himself. The “good doctor” is rather sneering in his tone when he says “I want to help you Charlie. You know that, right?”

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TB: Of course, Dr. Norman Jessup is most interested in helping himself…to his wife’s money. But he can only get his hands on the dough once she’s out of the way. So he will use Charlie to accomplish this.

We should mention the doctor’s wife Eleanor (Sharon Acker) calls him evil during their first scene together at his office. I sort of wondered why doesn’t she leave him.

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At one point later in the narrative, Norman says Eleanor bought his soul years earlier, when they married and she helped set him up in practice. Is he a victim in some way, or just manipulating the situation for sympathy? I guess the viewer can draw his/her own conclusions.

JL: Note how provocative she is when sitting on the sofa as her husband dials in Charlie’s obscene phone call recording. You can practically look up her skirt and this is network TV! The poor woman is desperate for affection and not getting it in this marriage.

TB: You’re right!

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JL: I think she still loved him despite how she behaved. I know…it didn’t seem like it if you judge her battle with him in the office. Yet she supported him financially and did not complain about it. I also noticed that his lawyer refuses to defend him in the end because he (the lawyer) was far closer to Eleanor than to Norman, suggesting that she was the one in that marriage who had a heart and “soul.”

This brings me to the “bought my soul” line. Not only did she help support him in his practice, but she may still be supporting him. His line seems to me a fit of anger because he is still struggling without her help. Mind you, he probably has some rich clients keeping him afloat since that is a mighty impressive BMW he drives. Yet Charlie is clearly not one of them. Note that Charlie said he is unemployed so…how is he able to afford his sessions? Dr. Norman needs Charlie far more than Charlie needs him.

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TB: Excellent point. I figured Charlie had been assigned to him as a court-appointed case that some psychologists take on in addition to their more lucrative private practice.

JL: It is interesting that this episode aired… yes, I am taking yet another cultural trip down memory lane… shortly after Gerald Ford’s State of the Union address, famous for the line “I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work.” Thanks to changes with women’s liberation and new laws taking effect, an increasing number of households had the wife “wearing the pants” to make ends meet with so many industries laying off employees, a high percentage of them male.

In this episode, we have two men who are more dependent on women than the women are dependent on them. Not that Dr. Norman stays dependent on his wife for long. I have to bring up the strangling scene. It happens way too quickly and, therefore, doesn’t come off as believable. Where’s the struggle? Was this due to TV censorship?

TB: Or maybe it was due to the fact that this is a compressed narrative, where the writers have to get it all told and wrapped up in 48 minutes. Though chances are they didn’t want to get too graphic and have a battle with Standards & Practices.

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JL: Also…why exactly did Norman kill his wife? Yes, we can make assumptions here. Yet you wonder what he was planning to collect insurance wise, since money is often  a good motive. There are a few little plot holes in this show, but I blame the confinements of a prime time show’s running time with commercials interfering. This would have worked better as a two-parter.

TB: Okay. We’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of this review…there is much more to discuss. So please join us!


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Part 2 of 2

TB: We are back to continue our discussion about this great season 3 episode of The Streets of San Francisco.

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Let’s go over Dean Stockwell’s performance as the unconventional protagonist Charlie Blake. We are first introduced to him at the police station where Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) is having Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) interrogate known sex offenders because of a recent rape and murder in the area. So we find out right away that Charlie has a criminal past, but he is now supposedly reformed. Of course, we don’t know how sympathetic he really is at that early stage in the drama.

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Stockwell seems to have a gentle way about him, despite the scruffy appearance and the character’s backstory. Still there are moments as the story progresses where we get to see Stockwell play Charlie a bit unhinged. Though he still mixes in sweet parts of Charlie’s personality…especially when he identifies himself later as a killer and needs to confess in order to feel better. It’s a very interesting performance.

JL: Yes. I think he plays his part well. As mentioned above, I get the sense that he has zero confidence in himself and is scared that his girlfriend will leave him. It is a very subdued performance but he shows off good sweat when under Dr. Norman Jessup’s interrogation. Unfortunately TV episodes only give a guest star so much time to develop enough character development.

TB: True. Despite the four-act structure for television, to enable commercial breaks, this story flows pretty smoothly and doesn’t feel as choppy as it might have under a different writer. This is the only episode credited to Rick Blaine, who has just two credits on the IMDb, which leads me to believe it might have been a pseudonym for an established writer. Incidentally, the episode is directed by Nicholas Colasanto who was also an actor, known for his role later on the sitcom Cheers.

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Let’s go into some detail about the long brainwashing scene where Dr. Norman Jessup records Charlie making a sexually harassing phone call. I had to ask myself if this was at all realistic. For instance, would this type of scene cause viewers to distrust psychiatrists? Maybe that was one of the goals the producers had in doing this episode! What do you think?

JL: They make it pretty clear that this man is less a psychiatrist and more of a Svengali type right away. However I could see the writing suggest that psychiatrists must not be trusted. Yet we do get a “genuine” psychiatrist assisting on the case briefly to make sure we the viewers know they are not all bad. Sort of like a show featuring both good cops and bad cops, good actors and bad actors a.k.a. ALL ABOUT EVE, etc.

A while back, there were many old time radio shows such as SUSPENSE that often featured crooked shrinks manipulating patients, so the concept here is not all that original. There is little question that the TV writers of the 1970s grew up with these classic shows in their youth and were greatly inspired by them. There is one 1946 episode of THE WHISTLER that, on the surface, was completely different than this one story-wise but also involved a 78 recording (instead of a tape recording as here) playing a role in a murder case.

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I think that one involved a radio announcer planning to be in two places at once: committing a murder while a recording of his voice was electronically rigged to play on cue at his normally scheduled time on the air so he had an “alibi.” Yes, this was totally different in story idea, but my overall sense is that one idea can develop into other ideas over time from writer to writer and show to show.

To make it simple: the writer here was inspired by past stories read and enjoyed, but took them to into newer territory to conform with the times. The seventies was a golden age for psychiatry as we see in many comedies of the era like The Bob Newhart Show and ANNIE HALL.

TB: Lieutenant Stone (Malden) and Inspector Keller (Douglas) note the odd coincidences that crop up in the case. But they do not initially suspect that Charlie’s being framed. It isn’t until Keller sees the tapes the doctor makes of patients that he starts to piece it all together.

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Any observations about the rapport between Malden and Douglas in this episode, and how they help sell this plot to the viewers…plus anything else you feel like adding..?

JL: They work very well as a team. Note that Mike Stone is the one who discovers the peculiar wiring of the lamps in Dr. Jessup’s home, getting Steve Keller to burn himself twice. They feed off of each other on this case.

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The final lines sum it up.

  • Keller: Jessup was so cool I thought we’d never get him.

  • Stone: Yes, the smart ones take it hard when they find out how dumb they’ve been.

  • Keller: When did you first make it?

  • Stone (instantly responding before Steve finishes): Same time you did!

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A couple minor interesting cinematic highlights–

I love the ticking clocks as the key objects of interest in this episode. It has that steady tick tick that plays even when Eleanor Jessup is yelling at her husband Norman. He breaks her clock just before killing her. I remember how Roman Polanski used a similar one, but mostly unseen, to great effect in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Sometimes the tick tick tranquilizes you and you suddenly feel vulnerable to control by others.

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As horrible as our opening scenes are with a woman (Dee Wallace) sexually assaulted and murdered in front of a poster reading “Love…nourishes all living things,” I should at least point out the great fashion sense on display. The victim’s hair-do resembles Toni Tennille’s of Captain & Tennille and the blue jean bell bottoms are wonderful.

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Also the mirror Dr. Jessup looks into when hypnotizing Charlie. He is upside down! My curious interpretation is that Dr. Jessup is talking to himself instead of Charlie.

This was a good show, but may be not the most inspired one. As you can see, I struggled a bit more being creative in my answers here than with the others. Either that or some of it felt a bit too familiar to me, due to…I guess…similar material in old radio shows and other entertainment.

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TB: I don’t think every episode is entirely original, since they are turning out 24 of these babies each season. Some of them start with standard conventions of the genre (cheating spouse, jealous sibling, angry boss/employee, etc.) and they go from there. I agree that these TV writers are drawing on earlier narratives in the genre, whether it is radio suspense drama, or classic movies of the 30s and 40s, before television. Or even classic literature, which sometimes inspires a writer and sets a “new” plot in motion.

Despite the constraints of a 48 minute story, broken into four acts and an epilogue to allow advertising, the guest stars do rather well. Some excel more than others with this format. Plus their screen time is limited to an extent because the series’ stars (Malden & Douglas) need time to have their moments and for their characters to continue developing.

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Incidentally, William Smithers would get his defining role in the 1980s on the hit TV series Dallas playing slick oilman Jeremy Wendell. A role very similar in motivation to Dr. Norman Jessup here. Both characters cut from the same cloth, men that put their own careers and needs ahead of everyone else. Men that see life as a game; and they are determined to win. Etc.

I looked up Smithers online and he is in his early 90s now and remains quite active. He’s had a long and varied career. Dean Stockwell has also had a long and varied career.

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As you said, Stockwell does seem to play Charlie as a man that lacks confidence. I very much like your comment that Charlie and Norman are both reliant upon the women in their lives. One for spiritual and physical companionship. The other for financial benefits and social status. 

What I like most about this episode is that while it goes a bit psychological and sinister, we also get to see a tender romance occurring with Charlie and his girlfriend. It’s a relationship that has some lies, or omissions of fact, in it since Charlie was afraid to divulge his past to her. But they seem to get over that. 

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TB: This weekend we are looking at an episode of The Streets of San Francisco which stars Karl Malden and Richard Hatch. 

It was produced during the show’s fifth and final season. Hatch had replaced Douglas in a special two-part season premiere where Douglas was billed as a special guest star. After Douglas’ exit, the rest of the series focused on Lieutenant Stone (Malden) developing a working relationship with his new partner, Inspector Dan Robbins (Hatch). The writing was just as strong in the final season as it had been in the previous seasons.

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Who Killed Helen French? was originally broadcast on Thursday night February 3, 1977. According to the wiki description:

“An abused wife vanishes after a vicious attack by her drunken husband and all clues point to murder with the husband as the prime suspect, but he can’t remember if he did it or not.” Guest stars include Alan Fudge, Marlyn Mason & John Kerr.

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TB: The title for this episode is very misleading, deliberately so, which I think helps make it a classic. There’s an engaging opening sequence where drunken husband Doug French (Alan Fudge) abuses his wife Helen. Director Allen Reisner uses some camera trickery to keep viewers off balance and to partially conceal what Helen French really looks like.

Incidentally, the fifth season of the show has sightly changed the writing structure. We now have a teaser that sets up the main theme (in this case wife beating) which is labeled as Act I. Then we go into Act II which is longer. This is followed by Acts III, IV & V which are also longer. Then we have a brief Epilogue, like before. Lieutenant Stone and his young partner, Inspector Dan Robbins, never appear in the teaser/Act I unless they are directly involved in the crime. Typically they arrive on the scene at the beginning of Act II to begin their police investigation.

JL: The cameraman and editor(s) were a little TOO obvious in the way they hid her face, only showing enough of the hair-do for identification purposes later. The beating sequence is portrayed partially from the husband’s point of view under alcohol intoxication, being rather blurry much like a dream sequence later. Maybe he just imagined beating her? Of course not, since we learn she is an abused woman.

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I like the title usage here. Death means many things, not always physical death but also the death one can experience when all hopes and dreams are destroyed. This is the story of a woman who marries for love but is shattered when she becomes the victim of abuse. According to Mike Stone, spouse abuse is among the least reported crimes and unfortunately does not often get reported until after the abused person is dead. In this case, the death may not be literal but psychological. In the end…spoiler alert…psychiatric care is needed to be “born again.”

TB: Yes, indeed. Red herrings are important in this genre. The Frenches’ neighbor Betty Rollins (Ellen Geer) provides a red herring when Stone and Robbins show up to investigate. She is convinced that Doug French killed Helen French. Inside the home there are blood stains on the carpet and Stone finds a blood soaked towel in the bathroom. Plus there is additional evidence found in the Frenches’ car. Doug insists his wife just left, but she always comes back. However, it is beginning to look like Helen was killed and her body is missing. In this case, I feel the red herring is rather effective. It draws us into the story. Especially since Doug French is now a prime suspect.

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JL: Prior to this show, I never realized you could approximate the timing of a collision incident by looking at the damage of a car. Apparently “no oxidation on the first break metal” indicates it happened only a few hours ago. Although we are informed that “the lab men” will check “the rest of the house” and the blood type is revealed to be “O,” there isn’t a whole lot of investigation on screen there. Had this been an episode of CSI two decades later, DNA analysis would be involved but we are still in the seventies here when such examinations were more basic.

TB: True. But in spite of the times, the writers are bringing a bit of forensic science into the investigation scenes. And this enables a bit more realism to seep into the story.

JL: As highly entertaining as this episode was and, no, I wasn’t sure how it would be resolved until it was resolved, I was still pretty skeptical of Doug killing his wife early on. 

TB: Why do you say that?

JL: Too many characters, not just Betty, kept saying that he did it and we had yet to see any kind of investigation. When people tell you something over and over…and Dan seemed eager to fry the husband over this, it does not mean it is true. In fact, you start to doubt it. The fact that Doug is told by his girlfriend that he did something he could not remember also makes you suspicious, which is why he needed a lie detector test to help him determine for himself if he did anything at all.

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TB: I love the use of polygraphs in these stories. Stone always has to remind the audience that these things are not admissible in court. Yet, they still use them. What else?

JL: There was Doug’s dream sequence in which he wondered if maybe, just maybe, he did kill her since his memory was such a blur. It was all overly dramatic the way dreams often are.

I also found it strange that Dan was at the wharf at night when Doug went there and instantly asked him if he dumped his wife in there. Why was Dan there in the first place? Investigating a different crime? Note that they waited until broad daylight to do an actual investigation so it was pointless if Dan decided to look for any corpses underwater at midnight. Also how could he recognize Doug in the dark so quickly? I guess we can chuck that up as TV dramatic license.

TB: I see what you’re saying. I think it definitely was a bit of dramatic license. There is no reason they couldn’t have searched for the body at night. But Dan was there, because he had been tailing Doug after hours, without Stone’s assistance.

Okay, let’s shift gears a bit. There is another character that pops up during the initial part of the investigation. Her name is Angela Somes and she is played by Marlyn Mason.

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We do not glimpse Angela Somes until Mike Stone visits her to get information about Helen French. Marilyn Mason gets top billing in the guest cast portion of the opening credits. So it seems odd that Angela Somes doesn’t appear until ten minutes after the story has begun. After Mike’s visit with Angela, she is off screen for lengthy periods. Later she becomes a key part of the plot’s resolution. 

JL: Intriguingly Angela allowed Mike into her apartment, carrying on a casual phone call while he was standing there, and yet she didn’t seem to know why he was there until the subject of Helen was brought up after various other chit chat. Although there was a joke about “some gentleman filing a complaint” on her so she knew he had connections with the police, we did not see him officially identify himself and needing her to answer some questions.

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Marilyn Mason was very good in her performance. Maybe a little too smooth and too different than the other character we relate her to later. This is a very tricky storyline to navigate here and, overall, the show did a pretty good job. Yet the results are not totally convincing. Nonetheless, I did not figure-it-out right away. Just was suspicious about Doug being a killer in a literal way.

I also liked Trish Stewart as girlfriend Susan Ross, convincing me the viewer as much as Doug that three thousand dollars was required for her to leave town because “I am doing this for you.” It sounded SO sincere in the way she expressed it!

TB: (laughs) Yes. She almost stole the show. A nifty little performance. Given her overall lack of screen time, the girlfriend makes quite an impression!

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Getting back to the Helen/Angela stuff, this plot resembles the one used in the season 3 episode we reviewed, Mask of Death, with guest star John Davidson. I would almost call it a “creative” re-write.

JL: As I hint in my previous comments, there are a few curious details overlooked either on purpose, so we are more surprised with the outcome, or by accident, since this is a TV drama and not a documentary and should be judged accordingly.

Yes, both shows have a few details in common. Wigs are an important aspect in an unveiling scene. Both shows have a main character who is a performer who uses a secondary personality to get lost in and/or escape from the harsh realities of life. The stage director who worked with Helen had a few insightful comments regarding this. Curiously, when he mentions that there are no more directors in New York but “only choreographers,” Dan looks at Mike and seems to giggle. Not sure what that was about.

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TB: I think it was an “inside joke” about directors staging spectacles instead of directing individual performances.

JL: In the earlier episode from season 3, John Davidson’s character talks to the mirror and confesses his crimes. But in this later story from season 5, Alan Fudge’s character is not sure if he committed any. I guess the dream sequence could be seen as some sort of parallel to the other episode’s mirror talk but I think it is nebulous at best.

TB: How do you think the red herring and the gimmicky nature of the revelation at the end ties in with the more serious social message about domestic violence?

JL: The overall message on domestic violence is a trifle lost due to the fact that we don’t see all of the “black and blue” that is discussed on screen. In the big revelation scene, I was expecting to see face make-up covering up something. Also I found it slightly…odd…that such a double personality could be so self assured in herself when posing as somebody else. There wasn’t much of a vulnerability displayed here with anybody but Doug and he is the one who is not supposed to be the vulnerable one. Actually I felt Alan Fudge played his role way too sympathetically since we never see him get angry except fleetingly in the opening scenes.

TB: I would have to agree with that observation. He should have been simmering a bit more under the surface. Anything else you care to add?

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JL: It was nice to at least see John Kerr, famous as a fifties icon a.k.a. SOUTH PACIFIC, here two decades later as D.A. Gerald O’Brien. Not much screen time despite his major billing over the titles. Barely three sentences spoken by his character.

TB: Kerr is playing a recurring character. D.A. O’Brien appears in various episodes across all five seasons. I guess because of Kerr’s stature (and probably his friendship with Malden as a fellow Method Actor) he gets prominent guest billing even if his character is only needed briefly.

JL: This is a fun episode despite its grim subject matter but, again, we can all be quite nit-picky about how realistic it is and whether or not Helen French’s stunt can be pulled off successfully without the San Francisco investigators figuring the answers out faster than they do. That is the nature of television prime-time drama.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. Next weekend we will look at another Malden-Hatch episode from the fifth season of The Streets of San Francisco. It’s a groundbreaking story in many ways. So be sure to join us!


TB: This weekend we are looking at another episode of The Streets of San Francisco which stars Karl Malden and Richard Hatch. It was produced during the show’s fifth and final season. 

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A Good Cop…But was originally broadcast on Thursday night February 10, 1977. According to the wiki description:

“A cop-killer’s henchmen hunt the only witnesses to his crime, an officer and an informer.” Guest stars include Barry Primus, Robert Walden & Mills Watson.

TB: Of course that description is somewhat of an understatement, which we’ll get to in just a bit.

Part 1 of 2

I would like to start by analyzing the working relationship that Lieutenant Mike Stone (Karl Malden) has with his partner Inspector Dan Robbins (Richard Hatch). It differs from Stone’s previous relationship with Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas).

Robbins and Keller were in a two-part episode together, where Douglas effectively handed the reigns over to Hatch. In that story, Robbins joined the team on what became Keller’s last case. Keller was shot and almost killed, and after he recuperated he decided to quit the force and take a job as a college professor in Berkeley. We never see Keller again in the series, but we are told that Stone stays in contact with him. While Robbins is dressed fashionably like Keller, his personality is a bit different and his relationship with Stone is more subdued. 

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JL: It does seem like, based on the few episodes we have seen here, that Michael Douglas really enjoyed his role. He is constantly smiling on screen, rather impishly at times, and working off “straight man” Karl Malden. Perhaps Richard Hatch was too much of a “straight man” himself and there isn’t room for two of them on this show. He has a nice mellow personality that would work well in other shows with other performers working with him.

TB: Yes. Okay, let’s take a look at the story for A Good Cop…But which in some ways feels like a time capsule. In terms of the cars, fashions, hairstyles, etc. Also in terms of the subject matter, which in this case is about a gay cop (played by Barry Primus) that is in the closet and gets outed.

JL: I feel that all TV shows and movies that escape nitrate decomposition are time capsules, there was plenty that I could “date” it by. After all, I have absorbed a lot of pop culture referencing, probably all useless information, over my life time. Yes, a few cars are vintage ’77 models, the technology of phones with actual extension chords and an audio cassette recorder playing a key role in the story are all interesting throw-backs to a pre-digital world. Plus there are other little details such as a mostly white demographic on screen despite at least two representative “black friends” at a birthday party, and the women all playing “understanding” wives and friends rather than members of the police force (apart from a secretary level).

The times were changing but they were still changing gradually during the seventies. Plenty of smoking going on too, which is a rare sight on network TV today. More importantly, being a “homosexual” was quite a big deal back then.

TB: Indeed. It is commendable that the show was trying to include different walks of life on screen. Not just the scenes that take place out on patrol but within the precinct as well.

JL: A quick check-up with the actual air-date makes for a most interesting pop culture referencing. February 10, 1977 was right about the time that Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save Our Children” campaign got launched and started making the national news, she being one of many agitated “devout Christians” reacting harshly to gay liberation and, especially, the Miami-Dade County (Florida) decision to eliminate discrimination against gays in the workforce in late January 1977.

She and other conservatives were fearful that children may be damaged by coming into contact with men who are not married to women and leading an immoral life as she defined it personally. Although there would be backlash against her in the coming months, famously with a pie in her face that fall, the courts inevitably took her side and the gay rights movement was pushed back a bit much as slightly less conservative but still conservative Phyllis Schafly was succeeding in preventing the Equal Rights Amendment from pushing forward. In addition, there continued to be residue (if that is a good analogy word to use) of Anita’s movement for decades to come. Remember that the Supreme Court only officially over-ruled all that Anita rallied for in 1977 on June 15, 2020, a full forty three years later! 

I won’t get into all of the politics here, but it again does make the timing of this particular episode most interesting.

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Officer Lambert, played by Barry Primus, is forced to keep his sex and romantic life a total secret from everybody he works with, including his best friend Ernie, played by Robert Walden. In this case, he should not be too terribly worried about losing his job since the San Francisco Police Department is described in one scene involving Karl Malden’s Stone and his boss as “not discriminatory.” Nonetheless it is discussed a lot both at the workplace and later in the courtroom that Lambert being gay still “poses a problem.”

TB: Barry Primus’ performance as the gay cop sort of drew me in. First of all, I think he gives a very precise and layered performance. He almost underplays it in the beginning. But we are gradually pulled into the story and his character’s specific conflict(s). I felt there were certain nuances that made his character believable and his struggle about his sexual identity most credible. Actually, it’s a brilliant and daring performance for the era, especially for network television in 1977.

JL: I did find the two brief scenes involving children quite interesting in light of the whole “Save Our Children” campaign. The gay cop is with both his heterosexual boss and a nun at a Catholic school in the first one as children walk in well-supervised pathways around them. Later, he is seated at the other end of a car when a girl talks to him and Richard Hatch’s heterosexual (supposedly since he has no secrets) inspector Dan Robbins, being the one closest to her.

TB: What are your thoughts about the way Lieutenant Mike Stone is written and played within the parameters of this particular story?

JL: We don’t see Mike Stone struggle at all over Officer Lambert being gay. In fact, he is completely OK with it as long as Lambert is a good worker with the force. If somebody looks and acts like you, you are more likely going to listen to what (s)he has to say. Had both the actor (Primus) and his character been a bit younger and more “hip” (and certainly not as “hippy” like those in San Francisco’s Height Ashbury), then the story would not succeed in getting the older viewers to watch this show and to at least ponder for themselves that maybe…just maybe…being gay is not the worst thing in the world.

TB: Excellent point. So to some extent, an episode with a daring theme is presented, but it still codified in a way that will not alienate the show’s core audience. Makes sense!

Anything you care to mention specifically about Barry Primus here?

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JL: Ordinarily it should not matter at all whether an actor’s private life resembles or differs from that of the characters he plays, but I do feel it matters in this case. With the primary exception of Lance Loud playing himself in AN AMERICAN FAMILY, virtually all of the pioneering “gay” roles on American TV during the seventies were handled by heterosexual men who were confident enough that none of their peers or fans would consider them “gay” just because a character they played was gay. According to his Wikipedia profile, Barry Primus was happily married back in 1976-77 to the same woman he is married to now. I guess it was still a trifle challenging to play a “gay” role back at that time and he should be praised to some degree for his courage.

TB: I have to admit I did look up Primus’ bio after I viewed the episode. But mainly, because I remembered him on Cagney & Lacey in the mid-80s– another cop show that featured two lead female detectives. In that case, Primus was in a supporting role as a policeman who was involved romantically with Sharon Gless’ character.  While he may have worked within the same television genre, he obviously was not typecast.

Anyway, it was interesting to me to see Primus play this kind of role earlier in his career. Again I think he conveyed the complexity of Officer Lambert’s sexual orientation quite well.

JL: I am not saying we needed to SEE Lambert with another guy to prove he is what he is accused of and claims to be. Yet the lack of anything substantial to go by here does render a final “joke” emphasized in the last scene as rather pointless. Earlier his buddy Ernie reacted with anger “don’t ever touch me” even though Lambert never does on screen. Later he comes around to accepting Lambert for who he is. That is, he sort of does…if not completely.

When Lambert teases ever so slightly with the line of “Hey, we were made for each other,” this prompts a still slightly homophobic remark of “You had to say that, heh?” as Ernie hastily goes inside the building. Lambert, Stone and Richard Hatch’s Dan Robbins all chuckle, which supposedly indicates that they all understand that Ernie will stay Ernie regardless.

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Yet something felt off to me about that scene. Was it the fact that the cast was acting “straight” in their behavior both on screen just as they all did off in their “normal” off screen lives? Had one of them been gay, there might have been a bit more sensitivity involved here. Although I felt this scene was not particularly realistic, you may disagree with me here.

TB: I think the writer was trying to end the episode on a lighter note, but I agree the joke in the last scene was not needed. Unless the point was to show that Ernie was still not entirely accepting of Lambert, if Lambert was going to be pining after him. And to some extent, I do think that is what Primus was embedding into the character though nothing explicit along those lines was in the script. 

There were scenes early in the episode where Ernie was trying to match-make Lambert with one of his single sisters. The sister seemed to know Lambert was gay and accepted him as a friend. Ernie wanted to feel connected to his work buddy in a way that stretched into the personal and family realm. Lambert wanted that too, but in a romantic way which Ernie has to acknowledge at the end of the episode.


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Part 2 of 2

TB: We’re back with the rest of our discussion about a fifth season episode of The Streets of San Francisco called “A Good Cop…But” which originally aired in 1977.

JL: Curiously we have another gay character referenced as Moonshine, played by Don Calfa. We know he has an active sex life based on a conversation with his landlady, claiming he is doing (in her opinion) something questionable with “every Tom, Dick and Harry.” Yet, unlike the very abstinent Lambert (at least on screen since we have no idea if he has ever been in cahoots with a Tom, Dick or Harry), Moonshine is presented as sleazy. He is both a frightened victim of a homophobic world (like some characters in the landmark 1961 classic VICTIM) and also connected with criminals, becoming a suspect in a murder investigation.

Moonshine is also presented as a “freak” hiding in a clown outfit and later getting lost in a carnival “freak” show among wax dummies. Although the whole point of his character is to keep the police investigation going, something didn’t feel all that right about how he was presented. It was as if Lambert gets the pass as the more “moral” character here because he doesn’t practice all the stuff that Anita Bryant considers “deviant” like Moonshine does.

TB: My impression of Moonshine was that the writer was depicting the fact there are different expressions of homosexuality. Also that homosexual behavior is not to be defined in any one specific way. So for every Lambert, there is a Moonshine. Or, to reverse it, for every Moonshine, there is a Lambert. As well as the other “types” that fall between in the spectrum.

Of course, as we’ve discussed, the heart of this episode involves the relationship between Primus’ character, Inspector Dave Lambert, and his partner, Detective Ernie Bell.

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It runs parallel to the relationship that exists between Stone and Robbins. In both situations the law enforcement “couple” has much familiarity with one another. They spend many hours in close proximity, in cars out on the streets and at the precinct. On some occasions, they socialize together after hours. Of course nothing sexual is meant to be inferred with the Stone-Robbins relationship. But I do think there are sexual undercurrents in the relationship between Lambert and Bell.

In the meantime, we go from police procedural to “buddy film” to courtroom drama with elements of gangster and noir added into the mix. But on top of it all there is a same sex romantic vibe. At least that’s how I read it, the Lambert-Bell portion of the story.

JL: One major flaw with many TV shows is that a major character or characters may only appear in one episode rather than multiple ones and, therefore, are not fully fleshed out on screen. All we have to go by are the key four or five scenes with conversations.

The very first conversation we hear in this episode involves Ernie trying to play matchmaker because he feels Lambert needs a good woman. Lambert changes the subject by asking for something to eat. He never lies to his friend, but just avoids certain topics he can’t address. Later after Lambert admits the truth to Ernie, we get the angry “don’t touch me” remark. This is why Lambert hesitated. “I kept it quiet because I’m just knew what effect it would have around here.” Lambert then tells Stone about the loss of friends by his “outing.”

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TB: Yes. I am glad you mentioned this. Stone sort of takes all this in, and he another person to filter the situation through. I felt Malden played his part extremely well here, showing Stone to be approachable, fair-minded and a good listener, as well as sympathetic. Another sympathetic character is Ernie’s sister, whom I’ve already mentioned.

JL: Ernie’s sister Connie (Amy Levitt is excellent in her few minutes of screen time) explains to him that Lambert is the same guy he always was even if he is now revealed to be “gay.” This seems to work wonders on Ernie so he eventually accepts his friend in the end. Not that we see him debate with his sister on the issue or try to debate with himself. Everything resolves itself rather compactly to fit the TV show’s running time, with commercial interruptions included.

TB: Final thoughts about the story itself– where Lambert is blackmailed by a crook who knows his “secret.” How would you rate it dramatically?

JL: It made for good police drama. Plus we saw the standard drugs, gun fights in the streets, a murder investigation and even an apartment blowing up. Yet I didn’t feel any of the cop material added anything other than to showcase Lambert being good at his job and handling his great secret being exposed with the usual anxiety involved. The villain exposing him, Arthur Devoe (Mills Watson), is confined to just three key scenes and the screenwriters don’t develop him beyond his basic role as a criminal who retaliates by embarrassing the cop trying to rat out his schemes.

I did like the tape recorder, a birthday present from Ernie, playing a key prop in the story, including the courtroom scene.

TB: Would you say this episode was “ahead of its time” and did the so-called happy ending ring true?

JL: I liked the emotional reaction that Primus the actor expresses in the court scene when his whole private world is exposed and he fears the worst. He is a good actor who expresses himself well in his facial expressions. Not that this scene lasts all that long and we see him actually experience many of the things he dreads. After the commercial break, everything is hunky dory between him and Ernie, Mike Stone and Dan Robbins.

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It should also be added that we don’t see Officer Lambert in any future episodes. He served his purpose as a curiosity for the show, making it trendy with the times when the word “homosexual” was being discussed in the news a lot in 1977. After this, we see no further appearances by Barry Primus or his character as the show continues, like most shows of the seventies, along its “straight” and narrow path. Of course, the times were changing gradually as Soap was to start that fall with one of the few continuously shown gay characters, again played by a “don’t worry, I am straight and this is just a role I play” actor (Billy Crystal).

What I thought was rather ahead of its time was Karl Malden’s Stone accepting Lambert without any hesitations at all. We never once see him bat an eye when he learns the truth. There is little question that all of us would love having such an understanding father figure who accepts us all unconditionally regardless of what we do when away from our jobs. Yes, Lambert is a good cop… but…he is still gay.

TB: Even though we do not see Lambert and Ernie again on this show, I sort of wondered if this particular episode was a “backdoor” pilot where the producers were hoping to spinoff this pair and give them their own weekly series. That would have been groundbreaking, especially if the duo was ever intended to become romantic later on.

We have to keep in mind that this was still dicey material for network TV. Most likely the Standards & Practices department at ABC went over the script for this episode with a fine tooth comb. Then after it was filmed and edited, they probably screened it in some executives’ office before deciding it was okay to be scheduled for broadcast. I am sure it had many hurdles to overcome, given this was still 1976-77.

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TB: Well, that’s it for our look at The Streets of San Francisco this month. All four episodes may be watched on home video. A bit later, we are going to review some episodes of a classic western TV series. So don’t miss those!

Essential: THREE SECRETS (1950)

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The cast works so well in this one. Though I am a Ruth Roman fan, I expected her flashback sequence to be the weakest because it was saved for last and she was third-billed after Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal. Parker gets top billing and the most screen time.

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In fact Parker gets the whole first half hour devoted to her character’s story, though there is a brief scene (supposedly on the same day all three adoptions occur) when she crosses paths with Neal and Roman at the adoption agency.

We learn in detail that Parker was pregnant with a soldier’s baby at the end of the war, and due to unforeseen circumstances she was forced to carry the baby to term on her own. At her mother’s insistence, she has put the child up for adoption though she quickly regrets it. A year or two later Parker has married a legal eagle (Leif Erickson) and has a strong marriage but discovers she is unable to have any more children which causes her more regret about not keeping her son.

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Neal gets the middle section of the film, which is slightly less than half hour. About 25 minutes is devoted to her character’s story arc. She plays a feminist career woman who in flashback was getting a divorce from a likable fellow (played by Frank Lovejoy). Just as the divorce has become final, she learns she’s pregnant. But she doesn’t tell him about this, since he’s already moved on with another woman.

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She gives up the baby because there’s no way to reconcile with her ex-husband; plus she feels raising a child might interfere with her job as a globe trotting reporter. Neal’s character could easily have been played by Katharine Hepburn, and sometimes I thought Pat was channeling Kate, to be honest. She’s the least maternal character of the three.

Roman’s arc begins around the one-hour mark, and she only gets 20 minutes, because the storytellers are reserving the last ten to fifteen minutes for the boy’s heroic rescue and the revelation about which one is this kid’s mother. But I have to say Ruth Roman really, and I do mean really, makes the most of her screen time.

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It occurred to me that she may be the most skilled of the three ladies in melodrama, because she teared up the quickest in her scenes and you could feel the gut-wrenching anguish and just how tormented the character’s life was. Arguably, she had the juiciest story to play because her character shoots a no-good lover (John Dehner), gets imprisoned, has the baby while in prison, and has the baby taken away from her. The murder scene was fantastically staged, lit and played. Kudos to Roman, director Robert Wise and cinematographer Sid Hickox for nailing it.

In addition to the casting we have a gimmicky story that works beautifully. I say gimmicky because it’s obvious the screenwriters had seen A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and were inspired by it.

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But of course this story is not about a cheating spouse but about an adoption. The two films are similar in that we must wait till the end for the mystery to be resolved and we have three protagonists whose backstories are revealed in extended flashbacks. I would say, however, that THREE SECRETS is a more effective melodrama because I think when you put a child, especially a helpless child, into the scenario, it’s a lot more dramatic and emotional. The viewers can invest in a boy being reunited with his mother a bit more than a woman finding out if her husband was unfaithful. 

The editing is smooth, and there isn’t one wasted shot or one wasted moment. Lesser filmmakers would have dragged this out over two hours, but Wise keeps it humming along and fits all the drama into a most compact 98 minutes.

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He even manages to insert a bit of semi-documentary stuff that gives us a slight break from the melodrama, between Parker’s arc and Neal’s arc. We see reporters at the rescue sight leading us through some of the steps that volunteers and various officials undertake to reach the boy who is stuck on a ledge up along the mountain. I am sure a modern filmmaker, if he or she were to remake this story, would leave out most of the reportage but I find it valuable. It infuses a tale that could be otherwise over-the-top with some much needed realism.

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Essential: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

TB: When Jlewis and I talked about this month’s theme on foreign animation, we were just going to do four Saturdays and take the fifth week off. But then I thought, why not do another one. Especially if there’s another great film we can bring to everyone’s attention. A day or so later Jlewis suggested GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. I was glad because I thought it would be good to do a more recent example of something in this genre. At the time I didn’t know much about this particular title. But as I’ve since discovered, it’s a truly phenomenal accomplishment. I’m very pleased Jlewis selected it as an essential.

One thing I’d like to point out– in his review Jlewis talks about whether the story needed to be done in animation. He cites the fact there are no cuddly animals, which is kind of interesting. I think it was done as animation instead of live action entertainment, because the topic is somewhat solemn. Presenting it in animation gives it a much more childlike and possibly innocent quality. I think this decision by the filmmakers helps ensure it’s more palatable for the audience, without sugar-coating or simplifying things too much.

I would also like to state that while it’s a Japanese motion picture specific to Japanese culture, it has relevance for American audiences for obvious reasons.


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JL: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (火垂るの墓 / HOTARU NO HAKA), directed and scripted by Isao Takahata and adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka semi-autobiographical short story of 1967, pretty much spoils the outcome for viewers even before the opening credits roll on screen. A teenage boy named Seita tells us in voice-over: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”

We see him dressed in uniform, but in spirit form, looking over a famished homeless soul in a Kobe train station, taking his final breath. Others comment “these bums are a disgrace” and the janitors come by to collect his corpse as “another one”…to remove.

His belongings, limited that they are, are rummaged through and one particular item, a candy tin, is tossed outside. A bit of anime magic happens as Seita’s spirit is reunited with another, a little girl, amid a group of fireflies.

This is the story of a person who was more than just “another one.”

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We backtrack many months to when he and four year old sister Setsuko witness their home getting bombed by American planes. Their mother is rushed to the hospital despite taking a shelter and her situation is grim. An aunt aids them to some degree, eventually accepting them into her home. However her maternal instinct for them does not last long and she tells Seita that he is a burden to her, especially since he no longer attends school (that being burned down as well). Selling off their mother’s kimonos helps with some food costs, but the teenager soon realizes he must move out.

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This is not an entirely grim story. We see the children have fun at the beach. They make a home for themselves in an abandoned farm hut and capture fireflies, many of which die and Setsuko buries them in child like fashion.

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At one point, a rotting corpse is fleetingly seen by the little girl, it being buried under a beach blanket. Her very protective brother tells her to not look at it. Death is something he avoids discussing with her, delaying the news of their mother’s death (which she finds out from her aunt separately anyway) and he never tells her that their father, a soldier, is missing in action in a fleet that sank. This is a very emotional film with characters full of depth that are easy to relate to. Sadly, little by little, the world around them starts to fall apart. Yet the brother does everything possible to make the sibling he cares so much about happy despite it all.

I won’t spoil the story any further but, yes, this is a great film to watch if you are not fond of traditional happy ever after endings in many animated cartoon features.

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I should point out that the Japanese have a more favorable view of death and life after it, in whatever form accepted, than most Americans. In a curious way, I do find the ending happy to some degree, at least in a spiritual way.

Many western critics, including the late Roger Ebert who adored this movie, consider this a great anti-war film showing how children often become the neglected casualties that never get reported. Yet the war itself, dramatic in bombing scenes here and there, is nothing more than a temporary backdrop. Much of the film involves no mention of any wars but focuses on two children trying to make a life for themselves when everybody, including one surviving relative, tend to act cool and distant with them.

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Adults in power, doctor included, give little guidance. A poor farmer is kind to them in a few small ways but he is no help overall. I find it more of an anti-adult film more than an anti-war film since war is just another aspect of adulthood that causes havoc on children’s lives.

Perhaps because this wasn’t a “fun” film, Studio Ghibli released it on April 16, 1988 as part of a double-bill with another of their recently completed features simultaneously. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was a much more feel-good, kid friendly fantasy. It also had the advantage of a merchandising character that helped bring in revenue not always accumulated at the box-office.

Unfortunately both films suffered some competition with Katsuhiro Otomo’s enormous blockbuster AKIRA, which opened three months later and pretty much dominated the international market. While it made U.S. screens and VHS within a year (and I saw AKIRA on video around 1990 although I wasn’t very fond of it with its complicated futuristic crime story), GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES only got limited attention in the American market and belatedly made the video cut in 1993.

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Nonetheless Studio Ghibli of Koganei, Tokyo was and still is a company that has gained plenty of prestige over the years. It had only been founded in 1985 and enjoyed a big hit with its first feature, Hayao Miyazaki’s CASTLE IN THE SKY released the following year. So successful was Studio Ghibli’s product internationally that even Disney got nervous, snapping up the distribution rights to much of its product in the U.S. and elsewhere by 1995.

Their reputation this side of the Pacific Ocean grew with the Oscar winning SPIRITED AWAY. Unfortunately, the Academy members then got neurotic about “foreign” animated features invading their turf and only the British WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT nabbed the coveted statue in all of the years since. However four more Studio Ghibli productions have received nominations for Best Animated Feature.

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What many of the prestigious Japanese anime features share in common is their extreme attention to detail that is mind boggling to the Americans viewing them. Nothing is overlooked here. The fireflies are photographic realistic despite all being drawn, painted and set-up cel-wise and otherwise mostly by hand. Although computers were starting to aid the animation process by the eighties, many aspects of this feature were still done the traditional way of decades previous and the results are absolutely breath-taking.

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The humans don’t look rotoscoped, but are very lifelike in expressions. There are many little things that impress: the careful details of the rice and other food items on display, the vintage newspapers that Setsuko doodles and cut from are a close match to those of wartime Japan, the countryside settings that resemble England as much as Japan in its impressionistic way. One major influence on the overall look of the film was Michiyo Yasuda, whose design ideas went against what was considered the norm in Japanese anime of the period by favoring brown over black ink lines around the characters, softening it more like the Disney films of the past. Particularly impressive is all of the airbrushed background work.

I guess one criticism that could be made is this: why bother making a cartoon of a story that can easily be shot as live-action?  After all, there are no make believe characters or funny animals involved. Sure enough, there was a live-action version of this made for Japanese TV in 2005. The original author Akiyuki Nosaka saw the storyboards in preparation for this film and was impressed enough (per Wikipedia’s article on the topic) to state that animation was the only method of storytelling that could adequately depict the environment he wrote about effectively.

The IMDb lists 132 names in the animation department alone. While only few of these names may be familiar to even the most passionate of anime enthusiasts, this was clearly a major team effort and a labor of love. You sense that everybody working on this considered this a special film with a special message that would last as entertainment for quite some time in the future.

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TB: For the month of August I asked Jlewis to select a theme and choose five films. He chose foreign animation. I am going to be reading these reviews along with the rest of you…then adding a few comments afterward. Since this is an area of film I know little about, my comments will be more opinion-based, with me stating what moved me or what I felt was effective.

As Jlewis discusses below, the first title he chose, PRINCE ACHMED, is a bit difficult to find online. There are some clips on YouTube, along with a documentary about the filmmaker, Lottie Reiniger. A complete version of PRINCE ACHMED is on the Internet Archive, with the original German titles and Spanish subtitles. That is the version I watched. Anyway, let’s turn things over to Jlewis…

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JL: DIE GESCHICHTE DES PRINZEN ACHMED a.k.a. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) is a very unique, one of a kind motion picture that is unlike anything else you would see, except maybe Michel Ocelot’s French efforts made eight decades later… also generally unseen by most reading these posts. It is a 65 minute fantasy made primarily by one woman, Lotte Reiniger, with just a few fellow artists of Berlin’s bohemian pre-Hitler scene assisting mostly with the background art and technical needs, among them the legendary Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan, Walter Türk and Carl Koch, the last being her husband and key camera operator.

It is pretty much an “indy” film by a female director long before such things became fashionable, a special project that consumed her for three years straight in its making. The third feature length animated production ever made, at a time when animated cartoons rarely lasted more than 20 minutes and probably three quarters of them were under 6 at most, it is also the oldest over-an-hour cartoon still in existence today. Argentina’s Quirino Christiani’s previous efforts of 1917-18 are still considered lost and one supposedly destroyed by the authorities in power for political reasons.


The primary technique employed is silhouette cut-out animation, using flat cardboard and paper cut-outs painted jet-black with limbs and other body parts attached intricately to make them movable, then animated frame by frame for the camera. The overall visual effect is inspired by the stick and hand manipulated puppets of European and Chinese shadow plays.


Among the earliest examples of this technique still surviving is the British short THE CLOWN AND THE DONKEY (1910), made by Charles Armstrong for Charles Urban’s company… and it is not even his first since he made an even earlier SPORTING MICE that is now believed to be lost. Lotte Reiniger did her first short silhouette animation in December 1919, making six shorts total before starting this ambitious feature in 1923.

It isn’t employed throughout the entire film. Other interesting effects include paint-on glass for the genie coming out of the lamp and other dissolve-like visuals, this being an animation style that Caroline Leaf later popularized in the seventies with her National Film Board of Canada work. Also there appears to be some pioneering optical effects involving photographed fire in one key scene.

Despite being made 11 years before Walt Disney’s first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, it is not “primitive” in any way and remains a fresh and dazzling spectacle to view even today. Speaking of Disney, he was well aware of its existence at the time he was making that feature, one that the Hollywood press would dub the first of its kind when it actually wasn’t, and studied her early use of a multi-plane system involving glass sheets with scenery painted and figures moving on them, each carefully placed a distance apart to create added depth. In PRINCE ACHMED, the effects are particularly good in the shot of our hero flying a mechanical horse over a vast city-scape.


The story utilizes the same original sources as THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, ALADDIN (and his lamp) and 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS, all fodder for many live-action and animated features throughout the century; the animated kind also include the popular 1992 Disney feature and a 1959 UPA-Columbia production featuring Mr. Magoo. What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing in common, involving characters sporting the same names but doing totally different activities on screen.

For example, in both the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks and 1940 Alexander Korda Technicolor versions of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, Achmed or Achmad is a lover of the Princess but Reiniger has him as the royally privileged brother of Princess, given the very specific name of Disnarde here. Instead, he falls in love with Pari Banu, the princess/queen of Wak Wak, and saves Aladdin so he can become Achmed’s brother-in-law.

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There is a villain in all of these film adaptations who challenges our heroes. In the other films, he is often labeled Jaffar; here, he is merely an “African sorcerer” who creates a flying horse that purposely sends Achmed away so he can take over his father’s kingdom. Despite temporarily being imprisoned by Achmed and Disnarde’s caliph father, he manages to escape and later abducts Pari Banu to sell off as a future bride for a Chinese emperor (cue some mild but notable ethnic “oriental” stereotyping here) whom Achmed, again, must save her from. Meanwhile, his sister’s love interest… Aladdin himself… has adventures of his own, battling a bizarre tree monster whom Achmed rescues him from.

Despite its episodic nature, the story is not terribly challenging to follow, although I was watching an online copy lacking English subtitles. However the action does happen a bit too fast at times. For example, Achmed battles a couple of beasties as well as the sorcerer in very rapid succession, including a multi-headed hydra that grows more heads as each one is hacked off by his sword.


In later stop-motion spectacles, Ray Harryhausen took his time with his similar battle scenes. At times, Reiniger’s battles feel like some drug-induced acid trip with Achmed succeeding even faster than Mighty Mouse. Perhaps she could have spent more time building these up better even if it extended the running time from 65 to, say, 75 minutes.

There is a witch who helps Achmed and she is rather interesting herself. She is a thrumpy, ugly looking dame with curious plants growing from her clothing. Yet she is quite the heroine and I wonder if Reiniger saw a little of herself in this creation as she assists Achmed in defeating the hydra so she can have Aladdin’s lamp…and she wants it for positive reasons rather than evil ones like the villain sorcerer. Regarding him, there is a climatic battle of wits between the two that Walt Disney’s crew obviously analyzed when they worked on a similar scene in SWORD IN THE STONE between Mad Madam Mim and Merlin: each transforms into different animals (scorpion, giant rooster, etc.) to conquer the other.

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Unfortunately this labored production was not a huge success when it opened in Berlin in May 1926, failing to recoup its costs initially. According to a great documentary on her life, some of her aging friends interviewed in the 1980s after her passing felt that the overall look of this film, so different than the live action features general audiences were used to, may have rendered it too unorthodox for their tastes. She would later attempt a second feature, but DR. DOOLITTLE wound up as a “featurette” instead. Many other short films were made in Germany, France (after she left as Hitler came to power) and finally England where she settled in her later years. Both her and her husband also worked with the great Jean Renoir in several live-action projects of great interest.

Initially this was shown with color tints, but the master nitrate print was lost over time and all copies that were made existed in black and white. Thanks to enough notes taken, the tinting effects could be digitally added a second time around for its 1998-99 restoration for the DVD market.

This documentary excerpt (the full film is a great one to watch but hard to find online) covers the making of this special film:


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TB: Thanks Jlewis. When I watched the film, it seemed quite lovely. But I also found it somewhat primitive. As you stated, Lottie had been making short animated films for several years before she attempted this longer project; and this film took her three years to make.

The one thing that kept pulling me out of the story is that after she does movement with some of the characters– whether it’s a flying scene, or a battle scene– the characters suddenly stop. There are pauses each time after the characters move. I feel the film is not edited well; where she should have gone in and snipped out those extra frames where the characters are still for a second or two between actions. It would have felt that the motion was more continuous if she had.

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Perhaps the reason she has these pauses in between actions is that it is meant to evoke the use of puppets, where the puppeteer does a motion with the character on a stick, then stops for the audience to respond, even applaud. But it sort of defeats the purpose of an animated feature, which in terms of action is supposed to resemble live performance. Actors on a stage, or actors in a scene from a movie, do not keep pausing.

Another thing that gets a thumbs down from me is the fact that all the silhouettes are in black. I think she could have been more creative and had some figures in gray or dark green. Or even reversed the effect, and for some sequences, had the background in black, with the figures in white. It got too predictable that the characters were always in black. Also, because they were in black, we couldn’t see any specific facial expressions or distinguishing marks to convince us they were real and not cardboard cutouts.

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Now she does present the genie in light blue. He is the only character whose facial expressions we get to see clearly. It would have been nice if other characters had such detailed facial features.

Maybe during the fire sequence, some of the characters could have turned red as if they were becoming part of the fire. Yet, she keeps them in black silhouette. It just seemed too easy, not differentiating the characters’ color schemes.

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You already mentioned how some of the action scenes feel rushed. I feel she’s jamming too much story into 65 minutes. It’s easy to see why the 1992 Disney animated feature limits Achmed and focuses on Aladdin. You cannot really have two main protagonists, and two love stories of equal importance, since it sort of pulls the audience away from one story when the focus suddenly switches to the other story, then back again. A clearer narrative is needed, with one main hero and heroine.

Now if this film was built around the villain, and it was about evil schemes against these different heroes and heroines, then maybe that would have worked better.

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The payoff would have been greater when it came time for the sorcerer to do battle with the witch. In some ways, it would have been like Oberon and Titania’s story from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which might have better unified all the separate story strands.

I don’t dislike the film. It’s charming and quite visually impressive. But I am reluctant to throw the word pioneer around since I feel that’s an overused term and sometimes gives early filmmakers a “free pass” as to why they may not have been more effective. Personally, I think she probably should have spent more than three years on it; and as you say, she could have expanded on some of it, to create stronger pacing and cohesion. It’s a valiant effort but ultimately for me, not as satisfying overall as I expected it would be.

Essential: MAUGLI (1973)

TB: I am going to let Jlewis take the spotlight here, since he has a lot of interesting information about this film. I do like the fact that he selected something that is basically a compilation piece, where previously produced segments of Soviet animation are put together to make a coherent feature involving most of the same characters. So it feels a bit serialized but yet epic.

I found it interesting when he talked about the socialist aspects of how men and women (co)operate in the Soviet culture; and how that affects the way female characters are depicted on screen in Soviet animation. That gives us a lot to consider, historically, especially compared to how the more traditional roles of men and women in western culture typically play out.

Anyway, I think you will enjoy reading what follows. And if you haven’t seen MAUGLI, you can find it on YouTube.


JL: TALE OF THE FOX and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED were essentially independent animated features involving one primary artist working with only the most limited number of assistants. Ladislas Starevich operated on the former with just his wife creating puppet costumes and daughter co-directing, making it a family affair. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE was a little more involved but head director Jiri Trnka still only had five stop-motion animators working under him at the Bratri v Triku studio while he supervised a.k.a. Orson Welles style.

MAUGLI (MOWGLI), a series of five 20 minute short films later stitched into a feature, differs from that trio in that it was the creation of a big animation factory roughly the same size as, if not bigger than, the contemporary Disney or Hanna-Barbera in the United States with no fewer than 16 key people working on the animation alone, even though they did not all work on the same individual films-within-a-film.

It is more challenging to single out one specific “artist in charge” here, but Roman Davydov is credited as director, Leonid Belokurov with script adaptation, Pyotr Repkin and Aleksandr Vinokurov as primary art directors involved with its unique post-UPA style and Sofia Gubaidulina providing the haunting musical score. A few of the animators later had successful careers as director-supervisors themselves, among them Aleksandr Davydov, Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin, Lyudmila Kasatkina and Nikolay Fyodorov.

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The film was made by Soyuzmultfilm, a company that still exists today. According to Wikipedia, it has 300 employees and has made 1500 or so individual films and TV shows to date. It was, in fact, launched with Josef Stalin’s approval as the Soviet Union counterpart to Walt Disney way back on June 10, 1936. It differed from Disney somewhat during the first eight years or so in that its product was exclusively in black and white since only a small handful of Soviet cartoons were in color during the decade of 1934-44, but these did include some fascinating Alexander Ptushko stop-motion shorts made at Mosfilm.

After the Russians took charge of the German film studios and all of that wonderful “UFA color” stock during the final year of the war, the great Disneyfication of Soviet animation was complete with a succession of all-color shorts, 20 minute featurettes and major epics running over an hour, beginning with THE LOST LETTER (ПРОПАВШАЯ ГРАМОТА / PROPAVSHAYA GRAMOTA) in 1945. These were now more-often-than-not fairy tales populated with fluidly animated furry stars and often rotoscoped humans, some multi-plane camera work and always highly detailed background paintings.

If there was any criticism of the unique “Soviet style” it was that it was a bit dry and serious in tone during the later ’40s and ’50s period with only limited “gags” involved (hardly any Looney Tunes humor) and much of the overall look was way too consistent at times, making it hard to “date” individual titles (even if the Soviet system slapped the years of completion on the opening title cards). It wasn’t until the early 1960s when, after several years of the nation loosening up some of its artistic creativity under Nikita Khrushchev, the studio animation displayed more variety of graphics akin to the National Film Board of Canada and the Zagreb school elsewhere.


Many of the truly great cartoons of Soyuzmultfilm that we cartoon buffs love so much tend to be products of the mid-sixties through early eighties period rather than earlier. Despite a cold war raging between two nations, a surprising number of Soyuzmultfilms made United States theatrical screens and smaller TV screens during and before the Sputnik era. A few anti-American films never made it over for obvious reasons, but the vast majority was focused on inoffensive juvenile entertainment with little or no “commie” subliminal messaging involved. The studio’s adaptation of THE SNOW QUEEN was its biggest  international hit.

Charlton Heston narrated the American television debut of MAUGLI in 1996 (on PBS). Personally I favor the subtitled Russian original that I have on DVD, put out some years later. Both are available online currently for those who want to view both. Unfortunately too many changes were made to the U.S. version, including the loss of that wonderful Sofia Gubaidulina music and some sappy kid-oriented songs added.


MAUGLI may seem a bit too dry for some tastes, but it is still entertaining and artful in its own right. The first installment of these Jungle Boy stories, titled RAKSHI, appeared in Russian theaters in December 1967, just two months after Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK opened thousands of miles away, but took on a different route of staying fairly close to the original Kipling.

It was given four follow-ups released annually before becoming a compilation feature in July 1973.

  • After establishing Mowgli’s adoption by the wolf pack in the first film, we see him grow up and deal with a mob of monkeys in POKHISHCHENIE (THE KIDNAPPING, 1968).
  • He then aids the dying wolf leader and frightens Shere Khan the tiger with his “red flower” (fire stick) and “iron tooth” that Kaa the python helps him obtain in POSLEDNYAYA OKHOTA AKELY (AKELA’S LAST HUNT, 1969).
  • A battle with a pack of dholes (smaller but ferocious red wolves) highlights BITVA (THE FIGHT, 1970).
  • After finally settling a to-the-death score with Shere Khan after he breaks a jungle law during drought time, Mowgli realizes with great emotion and tears, that he has grown into an adult and must now leave the jungle for an ominous return to human civilization in VOZVRASHCHENIE K LYUDYAM (RETURN TO MANKIND, 1971).

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One common theme in children’s books is growing up and leaving the world you are most comfortable with behind to face the unknown. Sometimes this theme is rather subtle, as with Wendy leaving the nursery setting in the Peter Pan story and Christopher Robin going to school in Winnie-the-Pooh. Both this film and Chuck Jones’ MOWGLI’S BROTHERS do a fine job in the final moments when Mowgli goes through great emotional anguish deciding what to do and Kaa observing that “it is hard to shed one’s skin until one is truly ready” (a reptilian reference in the English dubs).

The Disney version lacks a bit of depth here by comparison, since we have Sebastian Cabot’s Bagheera making a full commitment to “taking the man-cub back to the village where he belongs” rather than having Mowgli decide for himself as most kids favor. Likewise, the Disney version of Mowgli is quite obstinate up until the very end when he falls all a gaga over a water collecting maiden (a.k.a. Baloo quipping to Mowgli’s first sight of her: “Forget about those, they ain’t nothin’ but trouble”).

The Soviet adaptation, but not the Chuck Jones’ version, has him glimpse multiple women from a distance, then he catches the eye of one by herself later and she flees him in great fright while he stares at her with intensive awe, an interesting alternative to the usual teenage sexual awakenings we are accustomed to in mass entertainment.

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Among the few major liberties taken with Kipling is the change in gender for Bagheera the black panther, now a female with cubs briefly shown in one episode, This I find a novel idea since the original book is too bro-buddy oriented and needs a strong female character for female readers and viewers to identify with besides Mommy Wolf. Although rather sexy in voice (popular Soviet actress Lyudmila Kasatkina does great here, resembling Eartha Kitt as Catwoman), the way she is animated with great stealth and athletic ability makes her one tough force.

This is the key trademark of many Soviet films of that period, both live action and animated. Not that American screens didn’t have their own female super heroes, but the whole socialist set-up in that Enemy Country had both genders working a lot together in major industrial projects and occasionally during wartime conflict as well. Girls simply had more opportunity to be just like the boys over-there than in the United States and this was reflected in the screen entertainment.

I absolutely love the visual style that remained very consistent during a five year production-and-release period, enough for the shorter films to be seamlessly compiled together as if they were made all at once like the Disney version. Although the animators changed over the course of the five individual films, there was a strict adherence to model sheets to prevent the characters from changing.

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The designs are rather angular, a bit like UPA and Japanese anime of the sixties, with very bright colors and especially thick ink outlines bordering the animal bodies. Bagheera often resembles some peculiar vase when she is sitting upright and, when leaping from a tree with Mowgli on her back, she literally becomes Plastic Man of DC Comics.

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Both she and Baloo, a fellow black character, feature a mix of white and gray ink outlines in the night scenes and when walking together briefly, creating a shimmering effect. The backgrounds employ a great deal more watercolor in their creation that was typical during that period in world animation, although I am reminded of Ryan Larkin’s contemporary work in spots.

It looks like some attempt was made to do actual zoological research into India’s wildlife. (Likewise, their version of RIKKI TIKKI TAVY features a native India family instead of a British colonial one like the book and Chuck Jones’ adaptation.) There is no orangutan like the Disney version since they are not found in India outside of a zoo.

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However, we get the usual wolf pack, elephants, tiger, black leopard, an Asiatic black bear (although a sloth bear may be more suitable since it is the more common species south of the Himalaya), dholes, golden jackal (but with an odd mask, making him resemble the Russian raccoon-dog a bit), an India python much bigger in size than he should be (but that is due to Kipling making him too big to begin with), gaur (Rama the bull), eagles, peacocks and other local fauna (cranes, storks, water buffalo and sambar deer included, as well as an India lion and lioness cameo), plus a huge “herd” of langur monkeys that required a lot of animated en-masse motion and intricate cel painting frame-by-frame.

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Personally I consider Mowgli as the least inspired design. His toddler appearance with big oval eyes is absolutely adorable. But his later teenage version is too muscular like a comic book (and later Saturday morning TV Filmation) version of Tarzan, a problem I also have with the male human lead in THE CAT WHO WALKED BY HIMSELF (or herself). In this regard, I favor the look of Disney’s Mowgli better since he fits a small boy growing up in a jungle better.

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The stories are a lot of fun, even if they may lack the high comedy with Phil Harris’ talents and use established Russian actors (with comic star Sergei Martinson featured in all but one installment as Tabaqui the jackal, in addition to sultry Kasatkina and Lev Shabarin doing the older Mowgli) taking it all so seriously. Although a large portion of the audience may have been juvenile, this production is made for all age groups and can be quite dark and violent at times, the dhole pack scenes in THE FIGHT being the most graphic.

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By comparison to that action packed episode, the finale’s death of Shere Khan is presented rather too quickly with mere flashes of bright red dominating the screen, followed by his stripped skin draping the rocks. One short part in AKELA’S LAST HUNT, involving Mowgli’s search for the “iron tooth” gets a bit psychedelic in its visuals and it is possible that the Russian artists were observing the whole counter culture scene out west with considerable curiosity; likewise, the peacock spreads that open and close the episodes can invite referencing to the whole “peacock” fashion scene of Swinging London.

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One minor weakness in regards to the animation is that there are too many animals in this jungle at times. The overall effect is particularly odd in THE FIGHT when the dholes appear to swarm like hungry ants, when the real canine pack would have less than fifty individuals instead of what appears to be thousands. Some of the same issues apply to the hoard of monkeys in the second film, THE KIDNAPPING.

I do consider the ending a little too compact and slightly disappointing. Our hero is merely bidding farewell to the jungle he was raised in with just a simple waving goodbye as the final credits end it rather abruptly. Emotional depth is not as strong here as it may be in other Russian entertainment. Nonetheless I adore the music score and atmospheric settings here, the former getting lost in the nineties upgrade for U.S. TV audiences.

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TB: I have to admit that I enjoyed this film a bit more than the previous ones. And I suspect it’s because the filmmaker is borrowing from a story by Hans Christian Anderson which is vividly defined with memorable characters. So even an amateur wouldn’t be able to mess this one up too much!

It also benefits from a smart framing sequence, though I wouldn’t have minded if the framing sequence became a subplot and we had occasionally cut back to the boy taking little breaks or pauses from the main story, so we could learn more about his life. I know he’s supposed to be dreaming much of this, but instead of having him asleep, he could be daydreaming it.

Anyway, it could have been expanded. I agree with Jlewis’ comments below that the scenes unfold a bit slowly but I like more leisurely paced films and this aspect didn’t trouble me like it did some reviewers on the IMDb. Jlewis also comments about the stereotypes, and you really cannot deny the film is loaded with Asian stereotypes. One has to wonder why eastern Europeans would be interested in an Asian-themed story and not a story about their own specific culture.

Meanwhile there is a voice-over narration by Boris Karloff which to be honest, I disliked. Around the 12-minute mark, I muted the sound and watched the rest of it in silence. The visuals do not need Karloff’s highly intrusive narration, spelling out the action for us. Narrating should have been kept to a minimum. Let the story speak for itself.


My favorite sequence is the one where the emperor marches along a wall that is decorated like a huge lace doily, with holes forming windows through which the emperor’s courtiers watch. It’s an inspired visual and felt like something that could be replicated on stage if this were turned into a stage production. I also liked the amusing scene with chopsticks, which Jlewis details below.

In some ways, the story is about stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing what the rest of the world has to offer. It contains a simple magnificent message.


JL: CÍSARUV SLAVÍK a.k.a. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE may not “wow” first time viewers in quite the same way as LE ROMAN DE RENARD a.k.a. TALE OF A FOX since the puppets animated here don’t display a lot of facial expressions and there is no talk. The story also moves at a much slower pace and is much more basic with hardly any drama and cut-throat action. It is just a simple adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s popular fairy tale (1843 publication), done in animation before numerous times, that adds the additional side-story about a lonely little Czech boy (played in live-action sequences by Jaromir Sobotoa, with Helena Patockova as his girl interest) who sees himself as no different than an ancient Chinese emperor.

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Both are restricted to a confined life full of rules and rituals and needing an outlet. In the emperor’s case, relief comes in the form of a singing nightingale who livens up his humdrum existence. That is, until he is distracted by a robotic mechanical bird that is given to him as a gift: its theme within a theme relates well to our modern society that is constantly distracted by new technical “toys” and often overuse them until they wear out.

If you are a Baby Boomer or Generation X-er who remembers entertainment before home video, you may remember seeing this particular title in school during the sixties or seventies on a 16mm motion picture projector, often in rotation with other popular films like Albert Lamorisse’s THE RED BALLOON, Robert Enrico’s AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE and the Disney cartoon educational DONALD IN MATHMAGICLAND.

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At the time, there was still some novelty in seeing a stop-motion puppets move about because the classic George Pal’s Puppetoons were largely inaccessible (due to the Jasper controversy) and primarily the Rankin-Bass holiday specials on TV were the major alternative at the time, along with the occasional Ray Harryhausen effects enhanced live-action fantasy that would appear in theaters. Today, you can see all the old-time pre-CGI stop-motion you want on YouTube.

The decades between the 1940s and ’80s were, in fact, a golden age for stop-motion puppet films despite limited viewing availability in the U.S. Quite a large number were made by Prague’s great Bratri v Triku (“The Brothers of Tricks”) studio which produced this title, followed in the fifties by East Germany’s DEFA and the mighty Soyuzmultfilm of Moscow, adding to its already prolific schedule of cel-animated Disney knock-offs. Japan also had quite a few to contribute (i.e. the Rankin-Bass U.S. co-productions were mostly produced there), since its culture was equally puppet-oriented (unlike the United States). Despite the popularity on Soviet TV of puppet star Cheburashka, a Cold War was still in effect and he did not make inroads into American TV like Japan’s Astro-Boy.

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THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE was among the selected, popular cross-over hits. It was mostly completed in 1948 and released in Czechoslovakia in April 1949, then successfully distributed to U.S. theaters in May 1951 by Rembrandt Films. It received particular praise in the New York Times and other vintage periodicals for Boris Karloff’s delightful narration that was added for the English soundtrack. Although a major screen star, Karloff was equally praised for his excellent work in radio dramas of the era, perfect training for cartoon narration. It was the success of this feature that made him much sought after by cartoon producers like Terrytoons (i.e. THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY) and Chuck Jones (responsible for the most popular adaptation of Dr. Seuss, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS).

Jiří Trnka, the director and primary animator (but with a small team of assistants, Jiří Brdečka and Vítězslav Nezval collaborating on the screenplay and Miloš Makovec getting co-director credit for the live-action scenes), grew up with puppets and made the easy transition to stop-motion after starting out with some cel-animated cartoons initially in 1945, beginning with ZASADIL DĚDEK ŘEPU (GRANDFATHER PLANTED A BEET). ŠPALÍČEK (THE CZECH YEAR, 1947) was both his first puppet film and, at 75 minutes in length, his first feature that directly preceded this one.

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He went on to make numerous shorter films in addition to the features, several of which were included in the VHS and DVDs put out by Rembrandt with this film. Most notable was his last major effort, RUKA (THE HAND, 1965), with its pessimistic anti-conformity message that caused quite a bit of censorship trouble with the authorities in power back in its day; a concept not unlike THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE with its lead character almost dying of suffocation within the confines of his structured existence. Trnka probably felt trapped and confined psychologically during much of his life, both due to poor health (like the little boy in our movie feature here) in addition to the socialist environment he worked in; he was forced to retire earlier than he wanted to and died at the end of 1969 an unhappy man.

Nonetheless, he was widely praised internationally as the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” and earned numerous prizes… even an official Hans Christian Andersen medal for illustration a year before his death (since, after all, this movie was his biggest hit). The Bratri v Triku studio he worked at was later renamed after him in his honor.

There are murky copies of this film online, but it is best to find the DVD of the gorgeous Agfacolor print in order to fully appreciate it. Unlike TALE OF A FOX with Władysław Starewicz/Ladislas Starevich, which features very expressive Disney-esque facial movements and dialogue, the characters do not have moving mouths but express emotion from very specific staging for the camera and special lights using different color filters. The puppet used for the emperor is a gray-ish white that reflects warm golden and red hues when he is enthusiastic, blue cast when moody and is presented in stark shadows when sick during the major near-death climax.

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Some viewers may object to the slightly “oriental” appearance of the emperor and his royal court (with slanted eyes and pale complexions), but I sense that Trnka and his key animators (Zdnek Hrabé, Jan Karpas, Stanislav Látal, Bretislav Pojar and Bohuslav Srámek) saw little or no distinction between races in different countries other than the cultural ones.

I also sense that the overall designs were intended to emulate the 19th century porcelain figurines in the live-action boy’s bedroom, rather than intentionally try to typecast Chinese in general. Curiously the chamber maid of the royal court, who leads the prime minister to the all important bird in the bamboo forest, is not designed “oriental” but resembles the live-action girl (the one who leads our little boy counterpart to the emperor outside his enclosed mansion) with a freckled face and auburn hair. The European sailor, a clever spoof on Scandinavian explorers, sports a tight mustache and oval face; humor is provided in his struggle to use chopsticks.

One interesting minor character who is (unfortunately) not developed further is the astronomer/scientist whom the royal court questions initially about the nightingale. He is a grizzled all-white figure, a bit too simian-like for modern eyes perhaps, but probably no different than zany eccentric characters featured in other cartoons and kids pictures. He is busy counting all of the stars with his telescope and recording them merely with a star-stamp and ink. No writing! After setting off fireworks for the emperor, he loses his book in a fire accident.


One scene that often makes kids laugh, including myself as a tyke, involves a goofy frog holding a Chinese fan. Why the prime minister would be more curious about him than the bird that the chamber maid is helping him seek is not officially explained, but he reminds me a little of the frog featured in TUBBY THE TUBA, made a year earlier in stop-motion by George Pal in Hollywood. As is sometimes the case, certain characters in these films seem a bit out of place in their story set-ups. Also out of place are the curious cactus shown in one scene, foliage recycled a year later in a western spoof of Trnka’s, ARIE PRAIRIE (SONG OF THE PRAIRIE).

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This feature may not be Trnk’a best work but it was his most successful financially and internationally, a good introduction to his twenty year career in animation as one of its great masters. It is also the most kid-friendly. Some like OLD CZECH LEGENDS (STARÉ POVESTI CESKÉ, 1953) are more adult-oriented with a bit more violence and a darker edge to the proceedings. Then again, viewers who think this one is too juvenile for their personal tastes may get a kick out of that one and others. Or not? Hard to tell with many modern viewers accustomed to channel surfing and online surfing. Trnka is more methodical in his story telling and may test a few viewers’ patience, much like the mechanical bird toy playing the same tune over and over for the emperor.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE may currently be viewed on YouTube.