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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Americans in Paris (originally published 5/95)

With the release of "French Kiss" and "Forget Paris," Hollywood seems to have decided that this will be the summer of the American in Paris. This is, as you may imagine, far from a new idea. The City of Light has always been a popular movie location. Cinematographers love it because it is so photogenic, and writers love it because its spicy reputation for cheerful naughtiness adds welcome seasoning to any love story. For a look at how earlier filmmakers have treated the premise of Americans in Paris, here are some titles to look for on video.

"An American in Paris" (1951). The obvious place to start is with director Vincente Minnelli's classic musical. Gene Kelly stars as Jerry Mulligan, a struggling American artist living in Paris. In the time it takes to dance to a few irresistible Gershwin tunes, Jerry's love life goes from nonexistent to overly complicated. His main romantic interest, however, is a charming young woman played by Leslie Caron, who was making her film debut. The highlight of the film is the concluding 17-minute ballet, danced to the Gershwin piece from which the film takes its name.

"Paris Blues" (1961). When you think of Americans in Paris, you just naturally think of jazz. This Martin Ritt film exploits that connection by casting Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman as a couple of American jazz musicians in Paris. We follow their romantic interludes with a couple of tourists (Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll), but the story line is almost incidental. The richness of the film lies in its atmosphere, which is enhanced by a Louis Armstrong performance and by the Duke Ellington soundtrack.

"The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954). This sentimental picture is loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited." Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor play a star-crossed couple whose wedded bliss degenerates into tragedy. Fitzgerald's original story is updated from the '20s to the mid-'40s so that Johnson's character can be portrayed as an American G.I. settling in Paris after V-E Day. He hopes to become a novelist, but as the rejection slips pile up and his self-image declines, he increasingly turns to the bottle for solace rather than to his wife.

"Paris Holiday" (1958). Bob Hope made this film largely as an excuse to work with a French comic called Fernandel. The premise is that Hope is an American entertainer visiting Paris to purchase the rights to a French play. The story line is fleshed out by having Hope get unwittingly involved in international espionage, a plot device that had served him well in "My Favorite Blonde" (1942) and "They Got Me Covered" (1943).

"Midnight" (1939). As a writer-director, the immortal Billy Wilder has given the American cinema some of its most enduring classics, including "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," and "Sunset Boulevard." But before his credits acquired a hyphen he wrote scripts for other directors, usually in collaboration with Charles Brackett. "Midnight," frequently cited as a model of movie comedy writing, was one of the best of the Wilder/Brackett screenplays. Claudette Colbert stars as Eve Peabody, an American chorus girl who has fallen on hard times. She arrives in Paris penniless, but hopeful of better prospects. Things begin to look up immediately, as she manages to crash a posh society party, where she seems to be accepted as a peer by the Parisian upper crust. Actually, she's spotted as a phony almost immediately by a crusty old fellow named George Flammarion (John Barrymore), but he elects not to expose her. In fact, he supports and even bankrolls her pretense at being an aristocrat. In return, he asks her help in luring a certain gigolo away from his wife, Madame Flammarion. This is one of those cinematic miracles in which everything works. The inventive and clever script and the uniformly excellent performances seem to reinforce each other synergistically.

[2012 UPDATE: The allure of Americans in Paris seems to have lost none of its box office luster, as witness the recent success of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." I can't help wondering if the title is meant as a tip of the hat to Wilder and Brackett's immortal "Midnight."]

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Man With No Name (originally published 10/96)

Every now and then, the man with no name rides into town. He sows the seeds of chaos, then rides away again, leaving behind a changed narrative landscape. With the release of writer/director Walter Hill's "Last Man Standing," the nameless one is back again. The main character, played by Bruce Willis, masks his namelessness with the fig leaf of a generic name (John Smith), but there can be little doubt of his iconic pedigree.

To trace the roots of this character, we must begin with a novel that was never directly translated to the screen. The stories of Dashiell Hammett provided the inspiration for a number of classic American detective films, but his first novel, "Red Harvest," was never adapted by Hollywood. It features an anonymous main character, the narrator of the novel, whom Hammett refers to only as "the Continental Op," because he is an operative for the Continental Detective Agency.

The town that the Op rides into is a nasty little city in the Northwest called Personville, although it is better known to the locals as "Poisonville." The town is run by rival gangs of mobsters, whom the local officials are forced to tolerate. The three principal gang leaders are a bootlegger, a loan shark, and a gambler. The Op learns the dirty secrets of each in turn and uses them to set the criminals at one another's throats. In the end, all three ringleaders have been murdered, each a victim of the violent subculture on which they had thrived for so long.

In creating his anonymous gumshoe character, Hammett was doing more than spinning cynical tales about urban corruption. He was also reacting against the detective story tradition of colorful detectives with fascinating names like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. The Continental Op isn't in this line of work for the stimulation of solving abstruse riddles based on enigmatic clues. He's doing a job to draw a paycheck, and seeing far too much of the seamy side of life in the process.

The detective story would never be quite the same after Hammett's novels and the similarly revisionist fiction of Raymond Chandler. In fact, the influence of this particular story reached all the way to the Japanese cinema, and from there to Italy, and now back to the United States. To trace the development of this story on screen, look for the following two films on home video.

"Yojimbo" (1961). Japanese director Akira Kurosawa translated "Red Harvest" into a Japanese setting with Toshiro Mifune starring as a masterless samurai who happens upon a village torn by civil strife. As in Hammett's Personville, powerful factions are lined up against each other. In this case, the silk merchants are on one side of the conflict and the sake merchants are on the other. Like the Continental Op, the samurai is a nameless figure, referred to only as "the bodyguard" ("yojimbo"), who deliberately sets about upsetting the town's precarious balance of power. He hires himself out as a henchman for first one side and then the other. When the tensions between the two groups erupt into fighting in the streets as a result of his provocations, he perches atop a fire tower and sits back to enjoy the show.

Like Hammett, Kurosawa was reacting against a long-standing narrative tradition. He replaces the hero of the traditional Japanese swordfighting films with a shifty character who uses underhanded means to achieve essentially selfish ends. Also, he tells the story in a comic fashion, inviting us to sit back and laugh at the townspeople just as the samurai does.

"A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). This momentous little Italian production simultaneously launched the careers of director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood, as well as kicking off a cycle of Italian "Spaghetti Westerns." The story is lifted more or less directly from "Yojimbo," except for the setting, which is changed to a Mexican village near the Mexican-American border. Eastwood is a man with -- that's right -- no name who rides into town and interposes himself between feuding families. He plays both sides against the middle and rides away unscathed after they destroy each other. And, like detective fiction after Hammett and samurai films after Kurosawa, Westerns were never to be quite the same again.

Now, with "Last Man Standing," the man with no name has come full circle, back to his roots in American gangster fiction. I can't help wondering what kind of narrative landscape he will leave behind him this time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sophia and Marcello (originally published 1/95)

One of the many delights, for me at least, of watching Robert Altman's current release, "Pret-a-Porter" ("Ready To Wear"), was the on-screen reunion of one of world cinema's most memorable romantic teams. Although both Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren have enjoyed great success appearing separately, it is their performances as co-stars that most movie fans recall with the greatest affection.

Interestingly, their joint film work is largely bound up with a third dignitary of the Italian cinema, Vittorio De Sica. Although best remembered as the director of such Neorealist masterpieces as "The Bicycle Thief" and "Umberto D," De Sica began his movie career as an actor. Having parlayed his reputation as a stage matinee idol into a series of movie roles as a suave leading man, De Sica was cast in a 1954 comedy called "Too Bad She's Bad," along with Loren and Mastroianni.

The three Neapolitans got along famously, and their screen chemistry reflected the fact. The film's success prompted a second teaming of the threesome in another light comedy the following year. There was supposed to be a third, but at the last minute De Sica was replaced by Charles Boyer while Loren and Mastroianni were retained.

Soon after, Loren made the move to Hollywood and international stardom. During the next several years, she appeared opposite American leading men such as Cary Grant, John Wayne, and William Holden. Mastroianni, meanwhile, had achieved something unprecedented among Italian leading men. He had become a major international star without going to Hollywood. Largely this was the result of his lead performances in "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963), both of which were among the most celebrated films of Federico Fellini.

Sadly, those earliest Loren-Mastroianni films, made before their separate careers blossomed, are not available on home video. [2011 update: Happily, this is no longer the case. "Too Bad She's Bad" is now available on DVD.] There was, however, a second phase to their work together, and most of those films have been released on video. Here are some titles to look for.

"Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (1963). This screen reunion of Loren and Mastroianni turned out also to be a reunion with De Sica, but with a difference. This time De Sica was directing the picture instead of co-starring. The film tells three stories involving different characters, but all played by the same actors. In the first story, Loren plays a petty thief who avoids going to prison by turning up pregnant whenever she is about to be sentenced. This allows her to take advantage of a local law prohibiting the jailing of pregnant women for minor offenses. The second story tells of a wealthy woman (Loren) having a brief fling with a lower class man (Mastroianni). It is the third section, however, that people tend to remember. Mastroianni plays a young man studying for the priesthood who becomes infatuated with a prostitute (Loren). In one scene, Loren performs a steamy striptease for Mastroianni that has become a classic in its own right. In fact, Altman took the opportunity in "Pret-a-Porter" to create a scene that echoes that famous encounter, albeit with a wry twist.

"Marriage Italian Style" (1964). Again under De Sica's direction, Loren plays Mastroianni's long-time lover who has spent years caring for his mother and waiting for him to propose marriage. When he suddenly announces his engagement to someone else, she realizes that the time has come to take matters into her own hands.

"A Special Day" (1977). Director Ettore Scola's remarkable addition to the Loren-Mastroianni canon is set in Rome on the day of Hitler's visit to Mussolini. Loren plays a housewife who has declined to accompany her fascist husband to the festivities. Mastroianni plays her neighbor, a radio announcer who has just been fired because he is homosexual and because he disapproves of the fascist regime. The two come together in a brief encounter and then part ways. Both actors were playing against type -- Mastroianni against his Continental lover image, Loren against her glamorous image -- and both made the most of the opportunity.

I can only hope that "Pret-a-Porter" might signal the beginning of a third phase of the Loren-Mastroianni screen partnership. They may be a bit long in the tooth to return to sex comedies, but each has proved many times over that their range extends far beyond farce and their charm far beyond mere sex appeal.
[2011 update: Sadly, additional Loren-Mastroianni collaborations were not to be. Mastroianni died two years after the release of "Pret-a-Porter."]

Saturday, February 26, 2011

This Just In (originally published 3/96)

It is one of the axioms of the movie business that you're inevitably going to lose those viewers whose occupation coincides with that of your film's main character. If your protagonist is a doctor, for example, all the doctors in the audience will be too busy noticing the mistakes the actor makes to get involved with the story. Likewise, architects can't fully enjoy movies about architects, plumbers will get distracted watching movies about plumbers, and so it goes.

That's one of the reasons I'm not rushing out to see "Up Close and Personal," starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a rising TV news star. Having spent some time a while back as a videotape operator, working with TV news types every day, I'm afraid I might just bring a bit too much perspective into the theater with me. Still, there are some excellent movies about television journalism. If "Up Close and Personal" has caught your interest, here are some other titles you might want to look for on home video.

"Reckless Disregard" (1985). Back in 1983, the CBS "60 Minutes" program and correspondent Dan Rather were sued by Los Angeles physician Carl Galloway over a report that portrayed Galloway as an unethical doctor involved in the fraudulent dispensing of prescription medications. This made-for-cable movie fictionalizes that case, changing the name of the news program to "Hourglass." Leslie Nielsen plays an arrogant reporter, serene in his confidence in his network's formidable legal talent. Tess Harper co-stars as the attorney for the plaintiff. She's strictly small time, but she has the truth on her side. Armed with proof that her client's incriminating signature on a prescription was in fact forged, she takes on the network Goliaths.

"The China Syndrome" (1979). This film will probably always be remembered as the eerily prescient drama that raised public consciousness about the dangers of nuclear energy mere months before the accident at Three Mile Island. Just as important in my mind, however, is its equally jaundiced look at the TV news game. Jane Fonda plays a reporter whose mounting suspicions about safety precautions at a local nuclear power plant are met with outright hostility by her bosses, who'd rather have her continue doing the cutesy puff pieces that help to prop up the newscast's ratings.

"Network" (1976). When it was initially released, playwright Paddy Chayefsky's satire on broadcast news at the network level seemed to border on nightmarish fantasy. His vision of what network news would look like if it were taken over by the programming department seemed outlandish with its scandalous gossip segment ("Miss Mata Hari and her skeletons in the closet"), its viewer call-in segment ("Vox Populi"),and its raving host ("the mad prophet of the airwaves"), a certifiable lunatic who fulminates nonstop to a studio audience of adoring fans. Now, 20 years later, heaven help us, it's all come true, and more. What looked like a fantasy in 1976 now looks more like a documentary.

"Broadcast News" (1987). After years of giving us a made-for-TV version of a television newsroom on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," producer James Brooks decided to give us a somewhat less adorable peek behind the scenes. Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks play a pair of solid, competent journalists who inherit the job of packaging an airhead anchor (William Hurt) as the voice of authority for the unsuspecting viewing public.

"A Face in the Crowd" (1957). Although it doesn't deal with television news specifically, I can't overlook screenwriter Budd Schulberg's early treatment of the dangers inherent in television's star-making power. Andy Griffith stars as Lonesome Rhodes, an appealing backwoods drifter who laces his country singing with cracker barrel philosophy. When a television talent scout (Patricia Neal) gives him a shot on the air, his folksy charm sends the ratings through the roof. Unfortunately, fame brings out the worst in Rhodes, revealing him to be a vicious, scheming manipulator who callously uses people, then casts them aside. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's disquieting trailer.

Schulberg's script highlights a thread that runs through most of these TV news movies -- a sense of alarm at the raw power of television being used to yoke star personalities to the dissemination of news and opinion. Come to think of it, maybe my hesitation in seeing "Up Close and Personal" has less to do with any potential annoyance at the filmmakers getting the details wrong and more to do with the uneasy sense that they may have gotten the big picture all too chillingly right.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Case of Mistaken Identity (originally published 6/95)

Unless I'm badly misreading the signs down at the local newsstand, it seems to be Sandra Bullock's turn to be the flavor of the month. Over the past few months, by my careful count, she has been on the cover of every major publication except "Scientific American" and "Field and Stream." All she needs to do to complete the sweep is discover a formula for cold fusion while on a hunting trip.

It's no accident, however, that she is enjoying her hour in the spotlight. In addition to her talent and engaging screen presence, she seems to have a knack for choosing vehicles built around tried and true formulas. "Speed," for example, tapped into the bottomless appetite of movie audiences for high-octane chase scenes. Her current film, "While You Were Sleeping," makes use of an equally sturdy dramatic device, that of mistaken identity. It is, in fact, one of the oldest plot devices, and has served as the basis for both comedy and drama with equal success. If you've enjoyed the comic confusion resulting from Bullock's impersonation of an unconscious man's fiancee in "While You Were Sleeping," here are some earlier examples of mistaken identity comedies to look for on home video.

"Along Came Jones" (1945). Gary Cooper plays Melody Jones, an inoffensive and thoroughly inept cowboy who can barely hold a gun, let alone shoot one. He does, however, resemble Monte Jarrod (Dan Duryea), a gunfighter who is feared throughout the territory. Even the initials on his saddle seem to confirm that Jones is Jarrod. Cooper, who produced the film, plays the confusion for comic effect in a gentle parody of his own heroic screen image. It was a gutsy move -- or a foolhardy one, depending on your point of view. Cecil B. DeMille, for one, advised Cooper that his audience would never forgive him if he undermined their cherished image of him. Luckily, Coop's fans showed more tolerance than DeMille had given them credit for. They no doubt recalled how engaging Cooper had been as the gentle and amusing Longfellow Deeds in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1936), a connection that is explicitly played up in the film's original coming attractions trailer, which is reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Court Jester" (1956). In what is generally regarded as his best film, Danny Kaye parodies swashbuckling adventures of the Robin Hood variety. Kaye plays Hawkins, a lowly servant to the leaders of a peasant rebellion against a usurping king. To prove himself worthy, Hawkins assumes the identity of the usurper's court jester in order to assist his compatriots from the inside. This is the film that features Kaye's classic routine in which he vainly tries to keep straight whether the "pellet with the poison" is in the "vessel with the pestle" or the "flagon with the dragon." Another highlight is Basil Rathbone poking fun at his own villainous image much as Cooper had done with his heroic image in "Along Came Jones."

"Top Hat" (1935). No one used mistaken identity more entertainingly than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as this delightful musical demonstrates. Jerry Travers (Astaire) meets Dale Tremont (Rogers) at a resort near Venice and is instantly smitten. Dale, however, wants nothing to do with Jerry. The situation only gets worse when Dale gets the mistaken impression that Jerry is married to a friend of hers named Madge (Helen Broderick). In fact, Madge has invited Dale for the specific purpose of introducing her to Jerry, thinking that they might hit it off. This leads to lots of comic business in which Madge seems to be encouraging Dale to dally with her husband. The plot is great fun, the Irving Berlin songs are first-rate, and the dancing, needless to say, is sublime.

"Bachelor Mother" (1939). Ginger Rogers stars, without Fred Astaire this time, as a department store employee who finds herself stuck with an abandoned baby. Having agreed to hold the baby for a moment, she gradually realizes that no one is coming back for it. Everyone assumes that she's the child's mother, and nothing she says can convince them otherwise. It is further assumed that the child's father is the son of the store's owner, a suave young playboy played by David Niven.

It is little short of a miracle that a comedy with such racy overtones was made and released during the height of the Hollywood production code, which was designed to keep movie content squeaky clean to head off government censorship. If you want to watch it, though, go ahead. If the censorship police come after you, you can always claim that they've got the wrong person.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Calamities Aplenty (originally published 5/95)

The storytellers who create our history for us have the power to confer immortality. If enough of them choose to include a particular name in their tales, that name will acquire a life of its own, independent of its owner and therefore undiminished by his or her earthly demise.

There is, of course, a trade-off. In order to become such a mythic figure, it is necessary to give up your identity as a real, flesh and blood person. Once that happens, the realities of who you really were and what you actually did become irrelevant. The storytellers have an absolute license to choose good storytelling over factual accuracy, and they don't hesitate to use it.

That's why the real woman who was Martha Jane Cannary is even more thoroughly lost to history than most of her contemporaries. She has been superseded for all time by the legend of Calamity Jane, who may or may not have been the mother of Wild Bill Hickock's child, and who may or may not have toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's legendary Wild West Show. It all depends on who is telling the story.

If you saw "Buffalo Girls" on television, with Anjelica Huston in the role of Calamity Jane, you might be interested to see some of the other movie portrayals of this mythic figure. The few that are available on video are representative of the broad range of interpretations to which her legend has been subjected.

"The Plainsman" (1936). Cecil B. DeMille's epic saga of the American West features Gary Cooper as Hickock and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. This was crafty casting, since Cooper and Arthur had teamed up extremely successfully earlier that same year in Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." Arthur is a very feminine Calamity Jane, showing just a little tomboyishness around the edges. This was a time when women with a masculine temperament and demeanor were invariably presented in a condescending, isn't-that-cute manner, as if she were a child pretending to be a grownup.

"The Paleface" (1948). Jane Russell's version of Calamity Jane in this Bob Hope comedy is a kind of double parody. She's spoofing both the legend of Calamity Jane and her own infamous film debut in the Howard Hughes western, "The Outlaw" (1943). Hope is a tenderfoot dentist whom Calamity marries so that she can travel incognito. Since she has no real interest in him, part of the comedy revolves around Calamity consistently parrying his every effort to consummate the marriage. This Calamity is allowed to be genuinely tough and capable, rather than just a cute tomboy, because part of the comedy premise is the gender role reversal with the weak and helpless Hope.

"Calamity Jane" (1953). Sooner or later, it was inevitable that Calamity would get her own musical. Doris Day plays the title role as a charming tomboy. She's always been content to be looked on as just one of the boys, but realizes that there is a downside to her lack of femininity when she develops a crush on a certain soldier. Although that romance doesn't work out, it does lead Calamity to the realization that she has been in love with Bill Hickock all along. Looking back on it from our contemporary perspective, the film can be read as a wry commentary on gender roles, although I'm not so sure that it was originally intended that way. Day's performance of the song "Secret Love" became a hit record and won the Academy Award as Best Song. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's trailer.

"Calamity Jane" (1984). This made-for-TV movie takes an approach to the character of Calamity that is very similar in some ways to that of "Buffalo Girls." There is a conscious effort to minimize the cutesy tomboyishness of earlier portrayals and to create instead a more rounded and believable character. This is necessary in part because she is presented here as the central character in a dramatic film. No caricature could carry our interest over such an extended dramatic work. Like "Buffalo Girls," this version of Calamity's life includes the daughter she gave away and the emotional cost of that decision. Calamity is capably played by Jane Alexander.

This is, by the way, the same Jane Alexander who recently became the director of the National Endowment for the Arts. I imagine that her experience playing Calamity Jane has served her well in that role, now that she has had to learn to circle the wagons and shoot it out with savages for real.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Carnival (originally published 10/95)

This time of year I'm always on the lookout for new books about horror movies and the people who made them. Publishers, who know a thing or two about promotions, generally try to arrange the release of such titles to coincide with the Halloween season. This year, the most interesting title I've seen is "Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre," by David J. Skal and Elias Savada, published by Anchor.

If you conceive of Halloween as the creation of entertainment out of the morbid and the profane, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate Halloween publication. Tod Browning's early experiences as a carnival sideshow barker combined with his survival of a gruesome car crash to produce in him a lifelong fascination with disfigurement and mutilation. This obsession turns up over and over in his films, many of which are regarded as classics of the horror genre. Most of them aren't about monsters at all, but the potent strain of perverse morbidity that runs through them leaves no doubt about which genre they belong to.

"The Unknown" (1927). Browning's favorite actor, not surprisingly, was Lon Chaney Sr. Because of his elaborate and impressive talents with character make-up, Chaney had become known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces." In fact, however, it was more than just his face that was malleable. He also was willing and able to distort his body, even at the cost of considerable discomfort. For this Browning-directed melodrama, Chaney played Alonzo, a circus performer who poses as an armless knife thrower, manipulating the blades with his feet. In fact, his arms are merely bound behind his back for his performances. But when he falls for a woman who is pathologically fearful of being embraced by men, he has his arms amputated for real. In the meantime, however, his beloved has apparently gotten over her fear of men's arms and has become infatuated with the circus strongman. Alonzo's love is instantly transformed into a lust for vengeance, leading him to plot a grisly death for the strongman.

"West of Zanzibar" (1928). This Browning-Chaney collaboration, like many of their films together, repeats the formula of disfigurement and vengeance. It was a popular formula, much like the slasher formula is today, possibly because it tapped into the anger of maimed soldiers who returned from World War I to make their way through life without an arm or leg, or with a disfigured face. In earlier wars, Skal points out, soldiers who sustained such deeply maiming wounds would have died from them in short order, but by the early twentieth century advances in medicine had made such wounds survivable. This, in turn, led to guilt feelings among the maimed soldiers' loved ones, many of whom felt conscience-stricken because of secret feelings of revulsion toward their husbands and fathers, who were, after all, war heroes in addition to being family members. Naturally, most of this anger and guilt was repressed, and emotions that are repressed on a wide scale have a tendency to bubble up in the popular culture, especially movies. In "West of Zanzibar," Chaney plays a bitter man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a fight with a romantic rival. Leaving civilization behind, he withdraws to a remote village in Africa where he holes up and plots his revenge.

"Dracula" (1931). This version of the classic vampire tale was not adapted from Bram Stoker's novel, but rather from the popular stage play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. Bela Lugosi repeated the role he had created on the stage, and the rest, as they say, is history. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the promotional trailer from a re-release of the film.

"Freaks" (1932). This disturbing little movie represents the culmination of Browning's obsession with disfigurement and physical anomalies. Chaney, who could counterfeit such conditions so well, had met an untimely death in 1930. This time, Browning went with the real thing, using actual carnival sideshow attractions in his cast. Once seen, Browning's cautionary tale about the consequences of intolerance toward those who are different may well find its way into your nightmares.

"Devil Doll" (1936). Lionel Barrymore plays a man who has escaped from Devil's Island, where he was sent for a crime he did not commit. Seeking revenge, he appropriates an experimental miniaturization technique to shrink his accomplices to the size of figurines. He then presents them to those who framed him as dolls for their children. When the "dolls" awake from the trance state induced by the shrinking process, they avenge the frame-up in grisly fashion.

Browning was one of the most intriguing filmmakers ever produced by the Hollywood system. Skal and Savada's biography is a fascinating attempt to shed new light on the bruised and obsessive psyche that created these cinematic nightmares.