Classic Films on Review
Black Moon (1934)

If you read any reviews of Black Moon you will most likely read that it falls between White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie. At the time of this writing I have yet to see White Zombie but I have seen I Walked With a Zombie and certainly is a later take of Black Moon. This film has a very interesting concept and idea but it falls short in many areas and the pacing is a little too fast.
Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess) witnessed her parents being killed as a sacrifice on the island of San Christopher when she was very young. She was taken away from the island to the United States for her own protection. Several years later she is married to a man named Stephan (Jack Holt) and has a young daughter Nancy. Although Juanita left the island a long time ago that life is still in her, she still thinks about it and constantly beats on an old island drum in her room. Juanita is cold and distant towards her husband and daughter so Stephan sends her to a psychiatrist. The doctor tells him she has a neurosis that stems back to her childhood.
Juanita wants to visit her childhood home where her uncle still lives. Stephan is not thrilled but he sends along his secretary Gail (Fay Wray) to keep an eye his wife and daughter since he will not be going. He and Gail are having some sort of an affair. She wants to work at another place but he will not let her go (this is one step in some major foreshadowing).

As soon as Juanita, Nancy, Gail, and the nanny arrive on the island the natives are excited and give Juanita a huge homecoming. But now the danger has really set in. Native drums can be heard all day and all night, they wait day and night in a large crowd by the gates, and the nanny is killed for having crossed Juanita’s old nanny who was a native. Juanita’s uncle tells her she must leave the island immediately but she refuses she tells him she does not see any danger in staying. Gail becomes frightened and worried for Nancy sake more than anything else. She and Nancy have become attached since Juanita is so distant and the nanny died. Stephan comes right away but still his wife refuses.
            Juanita begins to sneak out at night and come back in the early morning hours. One night she sneaks a poison into Stephan’s drink for him to take as the first step towards making a zombie but not knowing what she did he gives the drink to his daughter. Luckily she is alright but now Stephan is angry and searches for his wife.

Everything is too late for now Juanita has joined the natives in their voodoo ritual. She and the natives over take the house and look for Nancy to sacrifice.

The story had a lot of potential to be really good but fell flat in a lot of places. This is one time where I wish an old film was a little longer and the story explained a lot better. I do not mind a quick paced story as long as it is good but here the quick pacing takes away from the story as well as the characters.
            Fay Wray may be second billed but she is barely given anything to do except be the other woman and a play date for the little kid. Also since she is second billed and has had a fling with Stephan you know somehow they have to wind up together. I knew that from their first scene together. I am on a quest to prove to many people I know that Wray was a very good actress that she is not always screaming and over acting in her films and this is one where when she is in a scene she is excellent.

  I have never seen Dorothy Burgess in a film or ever heard of her before this. I thought she was pretty good but I would have liked to have seen more of her and her character.
              Jack Holt is really nothing to write about. He seemed so much older than Wray and Burgess that his relationships with them were odd. He was really out shined in every way by Wray and Burgess. 
            The direction is not bad at all there were several excellently filmed scenes especially towards the end and there are sense with mounting tension. Several of the scenes were greatly enhanced by the cinematography which was so awesome most noticeably where Stephan, Gail, Nancy, and the uncle are hiding out in a tower from the natives.

Black Moon is not a bad early zombie film. It does have its weak points but give it some slack since it was made in the 1930s. It may be labeled as a zombie film but there are no zombies like in I Walked With a Zombie. I am guessing because it has to do with voodoo that it is labeled as being one. With constant drumming and danger Black Moon is a very good and entertaining film to sit through

The Vampire Bat (1933)

“Goodnight gentlemen. Don’t let the vampire get you.”

            Before you judge and laugh just looking at the title and think that it is a really bad 1930s “horror” let me assure you The Vampire Bat is not what you may be thinking. The story is actually pretty good.

            The town of Klineschloss has been turned upside down. Many of the villagers have been found dead from blood loss and two puncture wounds on the side of their necks making it look as if a vampire has killed them. Detective Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) sits in on a meeting at the burgermeister’s. Three of the men at the meeting believe the work to be of a vampire bat especially now that there have been an influx of bats hanging around as well as old town records indicate a case of vampirism. Karl will not hear of it he knows there is some logical explanation for the killings.

            An old lady known for selling apples has apparently been attacked by the vampire bat. She is frightened beyond measure. Dr. Otto von Niemann (Lionel Atwill) has been called in to try to calm her. A young man named Hermann comes in the room. He has the mind of a child; he walks around the town at night and plays with the bats. Hermann does this innocently since he knows no better.   The villagers think he is working with the devil and killing all the people. The apple lady latter that night is killed. Another local is convinced that Hermann is going to kill him because he told the police about him. The next day the man is found dead and now the whole town is after Hermann.

            Karl is seeing Dr. Niemann’s assistant Ruth (Fay Wray). She lives with the doctor, her aunt, and a maid. The morning when the man’s body is found Hermann sneaks into the doctor’s garden to get some food set up on a table. The aunt comes back from somewhere and sees Hermann. The aunt has no idea who Hermann is. Ruth, Karl, and the doctor sit in his office when news comes that the town is up in arms over Hermann.

 The men from the town in fear chase after Hermann. They chase him into a cave where he falls into a cavern and dies.

That night Dr. von Niemann’s maid is found dead in her bed. If Hermann is dead who has killed the maid? The conclusion (not the very ending) is really good and you can definitely tell it is a pre-code film.

            I really liked the story. It is a very good mix of old folklore and science fiction. The acting was not bad either. Fay Wray was great (and can I add very pretty). She had some over the top facial expressions but she was able to say so much more than needed. Melvyn Douglas at the end of the film was awesome. Lionel Atwill is just the man he is so good at being creepy and mysterious and just had the mannerisms for this kind (and the many others like this he made) of film. The Vampire Bat was made to take advantage of Atwill and Wray being in a film together since their film Dr. X had been a hit and Mystery at the Wax Museum was being promoted (I really like both of these films check them out). The only character that got on my nerves and was totally unnecessary in many of the scenes was the aunt she was such a pain.

            Although the title may sound corny trust me when I say The Vampire Bat is a good film. This film is one of the reasons why I find Golden Era films and their stories to be so much better than today. As I said the story is a very good as well as interesting mix of science fiction. The Vampire Bat could never be pulled off today because the story is a bit dated but for 1933 it worked perfectly.

            Definitely see The Vampire Bat for the story and the cast. Youtube has the film in full just type in the title and the date.

The Clairvoyant (1935)

 The Clairvoyant is a film you probably have never heard of unless you are a fan of Claude Rains or Fay Wray. Or you just happened to have come across somehow. One day I was looking around Amazon to see what Fay Wray films are available on DVD and The Clairvoyant came up. The plot sounded interesting and Claude Rains is in the film as well so that did not hurt. Luckily I did not have to buy the DVD or even download it, I recently bought an app on my iPhone called Movie Vault which contains hundreds of old movies. The app does not have popular films the films are ones that could be considered cult hits or not the best.

            Rains plays a phony psychic named Maximus who along with his wife Rene (Fay Wray) perform mind reading shows in English music halls. Rene stands next to plants in the audience and Maximus pretends to read their minds. When Rene does not get to the balcony in time Maximus focuses on a young woman named Christina Shaw in the audience. All of the sudden he is able to go into a real psychic trance.

Later on, Maximus, Rene, and Maximus’ mother are on a train. They run into Christine and all of sudden Maximus predicts the train will be in a terrible accident. He pulls the emergency switch stopping the train. The psychic, his wife, and mother along with Christine exit the train. When they arrive at a train control center they hear of the train’s crash. Christine’s father owns a newspaper. She convinces him to run Maximus’ story. The story makes Maximus famous.

Maximus’ next predition is of a horse race. The horse he picks wins. After the race he is invited to a gentleman’s club to give a speech. Christine goes to the club even though she is not supposed to be there. He sees his mother’s face on hers for a moment; his mother will. She dies trying to stop him from using his powers.

The psychic’s third vision gets him into serious trouble.

            I found The Clairvoyant- though short and not many things excellently explained- to be entertaining. This is an early British sound film so it is not as good as many American films being made at the time. Claude Rains never fails to give a great performance. You can believe him to be a phony clairvoyant who loves his wife. Fay Wray was a great actress and she was so pretty. It is a shame (and not a total shame) that she will always be known as Ann Darrow from King Kong, Ann just screamed all the time which did not allow Wray to act with lines too much. She was very good as Rains’ wife Rene. It was sad to see her so upset with Christine always hanging around her husband.

            The Clairvoyant is a film to watch if you are into film history. The film is a bit suspenseful and interesting to sit through. It is available to view on Youtube in full. 

The Most Dangerous Game (1933)

"Those lights don’t seem to be in just the right place. They’re both a bit out of position according to this."

The Most Dangerous Game made in 1933 is a Pre-Code Hollywood film. This was a time when after the invention of sound directors and writers and actors did not follow the codes that had been made for films nor were they really enforced.  

            Joel McCrea plays Bob, a big game hunter. He is on a boat with other men to a small island to do some hunting. The captain notices that the light buoys leading safely into the channel are slightly off course. The captain and some of the crew have been jittery about going to the island and now they see the light buoys are off course they’re more nervous to move ahead. Their nervousness about the island comes not long after their talk, the ship hits rocks and the ship goes down. Bob is the only survivor, he swims safely to shore.

Bob wakes up on the beach to the sound of screams and roars in the distance. He gets up to look around the island to find help. Bob finds an old fort with lights on. He walks up to the door, knocks, and the door opens with no one standing in front of it. He calls for anyone, he hears the door closed and a very tall man stands behind him. The man does not answer Bob when he tells him that his ship sank and needs a place to stay. The master of the house, a man named Zaroff comes down. Zaroff tells Bob that ships go down off the shores all the time there are currently four other people staying in the house from another wreck.

 Bob is taken up to his room where he changes into some old hunting clothes of Zaroff’s. He goes downstairs to sit for coffee with Zaroff along with two of the three other guests Eve Trowbridge and her brother Martin. Zaroff reveals to Bob that he also likes to hunt big game and that he has been doing so since he was young. After he was attacked by a buffalo leaving a scar on his forehead he became bored with hunting until he discovered “the most dangerous game” on his island. Zaroff won’t reveal what the game is. Martin said he had asked Zaroff and he would not say nor would Zaroff take him down to his trophy room.

            As Zaroff plays the piano, Eve takes Bob over to the window to take to him. She tells him that Zaroff had taken the two sailors to his trophy room and the next day they were gone, they have been gone for three days now. She has Bob look out the window, there are dogs guarding the house, there is no escape.

            Their host sends them off to bed but asks Martin to stay with to have a look at his trophy room. That night Martin vanishes. Eve is worried for her brother; she and Bob go looking for him. The pair go into Zaroff’s trophy. By the light of a candle they see a human head mounted on the wall: “the most dangerous game” is man. Zaroff and his men come back from their hunt carrying a body under a sheet. Bob and Eve come out of hiding from behind a fireplace to find that the body underneath the sheet is Martin. Zaroff has Bob bound and held against the wall and Eve has been taken away. Zaroff expected Bob to understand as a fellow hunter

Bob calls him a madman which upsets Zaroff. He has Bob be his prey. Eve has come outside and she refuses to be left alone with Zaroff, she would rather risk her life in the jungle than to stay with him alone. He promises the pair that if they survive to sunrise they are free to leave the island but if Bob is killed than he gets to have Eve as a prize.

            Bob and Eve run into the jungle. They stop at a large fallen tree where Bob makes a trap to kill Zaroff that when tripped the tree will fall. As Zaroff and his men come near Eve and Bob run to a nearby cave to hide. Zaroff sees the wire and shoots it with his bow and arrow and the tree falls. He knows the pair is hiding in the cave so he shoots an arrow to try to get them. It misses but Eve makes a noise. He tells Bob if he wants to be hunted like a leopard then he will be.

They run out of the cave anywhere so as not to be the anywhere near where the madman is chasing them. Eve is running ahead and she jumps over a small ravine. Bob gets the idea to try to make another trap, he makes a trap where Zaroff will think it’s ground but when he steps on it he will fall. This gives Bob and Eve some time to run farther away from Zaroff, his men, and his dogs. Zaroff of course sees right through this and jumps over the gap.

            The chase is now happening in a marsh where it is hard to move. Eve and Bob keep a good distance ahead Zaroff which gives Bob enough time to make a spike and leave it in the ground for one of the men to fall on. Zaroff’s right hand man Ivan is the unfortunate one to fall on the spike.

Bob and Eve come to an end near a waterfall. They hide behind some rocks before Zaroff catches up. When Zaroff does come, Bob comes out from behind the rocks and dogs attack him. He’s able to push one over the edge into the waterfall but another one comes and attacks him. He’s unable to get the dog off when Zaroff shoots at him and both man and dog fall over the cliff.

            Zaroff takes Eve back to his home as his prize. As he plays the piano Bob walks in the door. He tells Zaroff that he didn’t shoot him he shot the dog he only went over the edge too to make it look like he was shot. Zaroff tells Bob and Eve that they can leave but what he said was not true he will not let the pair go because he is upset he did not hunt them and kill them. Bob and Zaroff get into a huge fight knocking things over including Zaroff’s bow and arrow he used to hunt down Bob. Zaroff shoots the arrows at Bob but misses. Bob grabs an arrow and when Zaroff comes near he stabs the madman in the back.

            Bob grabs Eve and they run down to a room where a motorboat is waiting. They get in the boat and drive away. Eve looks back to see Zaroff in his last few moments aiming his an arrow with them with his bow but dying from his injury he drops the bow and arrow and falls to the ground where some of his dog are waiting.

            This movie is part of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood. If you know what to look for you can definitely tell it is a Pre-Code film: many Pre-Code films were no more than an hour long, this film was 63 minutes; Fay Wray’s clothing was manly ripped for much of the movie when she and Joel McCrea were running through the jungle; Zaroff murdered people for sport. With the length it made the story get right to the point there was no dragged out dialogue or dragged out scenes. If this film was any longer it would have gotten boring just seeing Eve and Bob running away from Zaroff through the jungle, the movie was tense and fast paced.

            This film seemed like a try out for King Kong the following year: Ernest B. Schoedsack was one of the directors as well as a producer along with Merrian C. Cooper, the screenplay was written by the same people, and Max Steiner created the score. Fay Wray a year later would basically play almost the same kind of damsel in distress in King Kong being carried through the jungle and her clothes getting ripped. Robert Armstrong, who plays Martin in the movie, would go on to also star in King Kong as Carl Denham.

             I really enjoyed this film. The story was good and the length was perfect for my attention span at the time I watched it.

King Kong (1933)

"Throw your arms across your eyes and scream, Ann. Scream for your life!"

 ”It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”

The original King Kong movie: to anyone who has ever seen this movie it’s hysterical. I laughed so hard the first time I watched it. In this century we are so used to CGI and computer animation that we tend to take for granted how special affects got started. The acting is so silly it is almost painful. The script/dialogue is not too bad, I have seen movies where the acting is fine but the script is terrible.

I recently watched the 1933 version of King Kong and looked at it differently from a historic point of view. Yes, not all of you may do this with classic movies if you watch them but try it sometime especially with this movie and it may not seem so bad.

            What truly makes this movie so classic is the music written and composed by Max Steiner. This is where dramatic film music started. The score expresses the feelings of the characters and the mood of film so well.

 There are three musical the themes heard throughout the film: Kong’s theme, Ann’s theme, and an Adventure theme.

The very first notes we hear in the main title are the three notes of Kong’s theme. We also hear the notes again before we even see Kong when the natives have Ann tied up ready to sacrifice to her to him. We know something is coming; the anticipation is building as we wait to get our first glimpse of this massive ape. Throughout the movie when Kong has Ann both his theme and her theme can be heard going back and forth as each shot changes between the characters.

Ann’s theme is interesting, the beginning of the theme the first three notes heard is the Kong notes and then it goes into something different.  Ann’s theme is very prominent in the scene where she is being taken up the stairs of the altar to be sacrificed to Kong. As she ascends the music in her theme ascends. As Kong is coming and the natives get excited her theme plays back and forth with the theme of the natives: when the camera pans on her it’s her theme and when the camera pans on the natives it is their theme.

 The Adventure Theme first comes in after the crew is sent away by the natives when they arrive on the island. For this scene, the theme is played by a French horn. After Ann is taken by Kong the crew walks through the jungle, the Adventure theme is used as a march.

Besides the themes of Ann, Kong, and the crew the music in the movie Steiner created was genius:

For the first twenty minutes of the movie after the main title there is no music. There are plenty of cuts and fade outs where Steiner could have added music but he didn’t, he most likely figured there is so much music to come when the action arrives that he did not add anything before the island. The first time we hear music after the main title is when the ship first comes upon Skull Island. The music opens up the shot, it makes the island and the shot feel expansive. Drums from the natives playing music can be heard can be heard as the ship moves near the island, this is called source music and Steiner took this source music and fit his score around the source music.

When the crew arrives on the island and are noticed by the natives their music stops. This stopping of the music draws our attention to the scene and the situation before us. It creates a nervous tension we can see the crew is nervous to be on the island and nervous because they do not know what the natives are capable of. The music of the natives movies faster and gets more exciting as the Medicine Man gets more excited.

The music in the scene where Ann is kidnapped by the natives is structured: it starts off nice and calm then when she gets taken there is a spike in the music and then it ends like it began. It fits right with the storyline of the scene.

There is no music when there is screaming and fighting. Both actions are dramatic enough that no music is needed.

The music really kicks up when the crew get closer to Kong’s lair and to Ann. As the men cross the water, Steiner took all the themes and created what is called a dissonance making the sound of the notes all mashed together to create tension. There is up music and down music throughout the scene.

One of the most important aspects of the music in this movie is what is called “Mickey Mousing.” Mickey mousing is when the music is used as sound effects. When the Medicine Man walks over to the crew the music mimics his actions.  The Adventure theme is played along to the walking movement of the crew. After the crew wound the dinosaur, Steiner used the tympanum (a type of drum that when can create different ranges with a peddle) as the sound of the animals tail moving up and down.

As I said at the beginning the acting is silly. A lot of the acting techniques were brought over from the silent era like when Jack kisses Ann on the boat, he walks away and she puts her hand on her mouth. Fay Wray (Ann) had some very over dramatic facial expressions and actions going on throughout the whole film just like in silent films. The character Carl Denham has got to be one of the most annoying movie characters ever, his voice and his fast talking got on my nerves the first few minutes of the film.

One of my favorite aspects in old films is how sexist they are. Even before Ann gets on the ship Jack is complaining how he doesn’t think women should be on a ship because according to him they bring too much trouble…. If that isn’t some big foreshadowing I don’t know what is. The whole time she’s on the ship up to the point before she gets kidnapped where they fall in love Jack does nothing but complain (As my film teacher said people fall in love pretty quickly in movies). Old movies were basically written by men with a few exceptions so of course they always put women “in their places”. But hey it’s not her fault if you really look at it: Denham took advantage of Ann needing money and HE INSISTED that there be a woman in his film.

There are quite a few things that got into the film that were quite risqué for the time: Kong pulling off Ann’s clothing and her thighs being seen and Fay Wray obviously not wearing a bra at one point on the boat. These were later added as a “Thou Shall Not” in the Hayes Code… Gotta love pre code Hollywood.

The end of the movie where Kong is brought to New York has some of my favorite music in it. It is typical 1930s fanfare music. The whole ending is just exciting. Seeing Kong in another “jungle” of steel and concrete is exciting and thrilling. The two pilots who get the close ups are the writers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

If you have seen King Kong before and laughed like an idiot watch it again with all seriousness. You will see this movie is very important to film history. The score was the beginning of the scores we hear in movies today. It was the beginning of the progress of special effects. So many things are so important about this movie.

So watch King Kong with new eyes and ears…. And also have a good laugh along the way