Foolish Wives and Forbidden Games,
and a few more films

A Fool There Was (1915)
Streaming free at Tubi

#273  [archive]
APR. 8, 2024

She was a scamp, a camp, and a bit of a tramp, she was a V*A*M*P — vamp! 

This is the role that made Theda Bara the whispered talk of the nation, playing a sultry seductive 'vampire' who doesn't suck blood, just sucks men of their morality and cash.

She plays a passenger aboard a steamship crossing the Atlantic, who snares a married lawyer who's traveling to England for diplomatic duty. The affair on the ship somehow turns the lawyer into Theda's sex slave, which costs him his fortune, his sanity, his family.

"Kiss me, my fool!"

Ms Bara seems to be having a fine time, but her performance is very much of 'then', and didn't do anything for me in the now.

Of interest only archaeologically.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Foolish Wives (1922)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is another silent film, and plotwise slightly similar to A Fool There Was (above), with the sexes reversed. It's also exponentially better.

Erich von Stroheim stars as a Russian Count, Sergi Karamzin, except he's actually a con man impersonating the Count. And he's a scoundrel.

Karamzin lives in a villa overlooking a Monte Carlo casino, sharing the lavish quarters with his alleged cousins, Princess Olga and Princess Vera. They're all reprehensible, but Karamzin is the worst. He's promised to marry his maid, with of course no such intentions. When she complains about it he tries to swindle her out of her life savings. He also chases the retarded daughter of a counterfeiter. And worse.

Karamzin's income is from passing counterfeit money at the casino, and blackmailing the "foolish wives" of wealthy men. His latest mark is Helen Hughes, who's married to the US Ambassador, but that won't stop Karamzin.

The moviemaking here is a marvel, with great shots, dialogue you can almost hear despite the movie's silence, and bravado from the director/star Stroheim.

In one scene, Mrs Hughes tries to brush Karamzin off by reading a novel, and he asks to see what she's reading. She hands him the book, and the camera lingers long enough to see that it's Foolish Wives, by Erich von Stroheim. Karamzin (Stroheim) then pauses to flip through a few pages, which of course sent me to the internet to see whether the book exists. It doesn't, but what a cocky inside joke! 

On screen, Stroheim creates one of the cinema's most delightfully awful villains, and behind the camera he was infamously demanding, tyrannical, and kinda nuts. He directed about a dozen films, including the classic Greed, but in our time he's best known for playing the butler in Sunset Blvd, or the prisoner-of-war commandant in Grand Illusion.

When Stroheim finished this film, it was nearly 6½ hours long. The studio, run by Irving Thalberg, of course amputated most of it, and released the film with a running time of a bit less than two hours. The copy I'm lucky enough to have seen has been 'restored' to almost 2½ hours, and feels neither too long nor too short, but I wouldn't argue with seeing four more hours of it.

A terrific silent film like this makes me hope it's true what they used to say, that talkies are just a fad. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

For All Mankind (1989)
Streaming free at YouTube

My dad worked on the space program in the 1960s, and he worked about 80 hours every week, so we were never close. I loved him, though, and he loved aeronautics and space exploration and science-fiction. When this science-fact documentary about the Apollo missions to the moon came out, I took him to see it at Seattle's Neptune Theater, a grand old palace with a screen almost as big as space itself. 

Dad wasn't that impressed. Being an insider, there wasn't much in the movie that he hadn't already seen, didn't already know. But it pulled both eyeballs out of my head, pumped me full of the galaxy, and I loved it.

Watching it again, though, was not the same experience. It's not the movie's fault, but seeing it at a theater is astronomically different from seeing it in a recliner at home.

The power of the movie comes from its hugeness, letting you see the big black and enormous emptiness of space, punctuated by occasional stars and spacewalks, and moondust that puffs up off the surface when the astronauts' shoes come down. Even with my laptop literally in my lap, my eyes mere inches from the screen, most of the visual grandeur is a fraction of what it was. And a fraction of grandeur isn't really grandeur. 

Being less bowled over this time, I also noticed that there are too many of the staged 'video ops' I remember from seeing on TV in my childhood. Here's a recording of Frank Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon," while the astronauts are flying to the moon. That's mildly amusing, but next is Buck Owens singing a song specially performed for the astronauts. And then, Merle Haggard serenades the crewmen, too. There ain't much that's more the opposite of bowled-me-over.

After that, the flick gets better. Astronauts utter accidental profundities as they look out the spacecraft's window, or play around like little boys on the lunar surface. It refutes the ninnies who say we should send androids and robots into space instead of people — no machine could comprehend or convey such feeling.

Smartly, there's no narration, no expert interviews, and no added graphics. The only voices heard are the original recorded conversations between the astronauts and Mission Control, plus some snippets from President Kennedy at the beginning and end of the film. The cinematography is by the astronauts themselves, holding cameras on the ship and on the moon, so you're seeing history as it happened.

But you don't get to hear history without classical music and Brian Eno. There's maybe never been a true story more amazing, and less in need of a musical score, but the literally awesome reality of humans walking on what's almost another world is augmented by synthesizers. Sigh.

Also, why is this movie so short? It's barely an hour and twenty minutes, but if ever a topic deserved a more epic treatment, this is that topic.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

For Scent-imental Reasons (1948)
Streaming free at Internet Archives

From Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc, here's Pepé Le Pew, the smelly skunk with stink viably rising from his backside, who always imagines himself irresistible to the lady skunks. Here he's trying to romance a black cat in a Parisian parfum shoppe.

Pepé is my least favorite character from the cast at Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies, just because he's the same joke every time. He has his stinky charms, though, and the cartoon is only seven minutes.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Forbidden Area (1956)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

"We're strictly beer and pretzel men up here. Count on it."

Long ago in what must've been a very different America, CBS had a TV show called Playhouse 90, broadcasting an original play, live, once weekly. This was why they called CBS "the Tiffany network" — it had some class.

This was the very first presentation from Playhouse 90, starring Charlton Heston, Tab Hunter, Diana Lynn, Vincent Price, Charles Bickford, Jackie Coogan, and William Schallert; screenplay by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer, and introduced by Jack Palance.

Heston is hammy as hell, in an otherwise taut Cold War thriller about a top secret group of American military strategists, tasked to anticipate how and when the Soviets will attack America. And in 1956, it was 'when', not 'if'. Most folks thought nuclear war was imminent (psst — it still is) so this would've been hella frightening. And I gotta say, the plot the movie's Russkies come up with is ingenious.

Other than Heston, the only problem is the play's last ten minutes. Everything's been resolved, but instead of "The End" the story continues and gets kinda corny. Until the last ten minutes, though, this rocks.

Verdict: YES.

Special thanks to Scarecrow Video, where my membership comes with a monthly movie-related perk. For March, the perk was streaming access to a nearly pristine kinescope copy of this, from the late Mr Frankenheimer's personal collection. Copies on-line, including the one I've linked to, aren't nearly so luscious. Sucks to be you, ha ha!

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Forbidden City, U.S.A. (1989)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Charlie Low's Forbidden City was the first and most famous Chinese nightclub in America, on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown district. It closed in 1970, and this is a warm remembrance of the place.

The moviemakers talk with many of the singers and dancers, all old by 1989, and with Mr Low himself, and insert clips from their acts, filmed decades earlier.

When some of the performers went on the road, they met with more discrimination than they were accustomed to in Frisco, including some that surprised me in my whiteness.

"No sooner than I boarded the bus, I realized, this is segregated. Where do you sit? I looked to the rear, looked to the front. Fortunately, there was something open at the middle of the bus. OK, kid, go for it, so I sat down in the middle of the bus, but nobody sat down beside me. Oh, well. One learns to let it roll off you, when you feel discrimination is staring you in the face."

The dancers and comics and choreographers are all very open, eager to talk about their good old days, and it's quite interesting. I might've liked to have gone to Forbidden City and seen a show… if I could get a very secluded table, away from the crowd.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Forbidden Games (1952)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is a French film, and the only version I could find with English subtitles also comes with colorization. I would love to see it in its original black-and-white, but until then, it's excellent in spite of all the odd skin tones and incorrect sunlight.

It's 1940, a war is raging, and Paulette, a little French girl from an upper-class family, has been orphaned by a Nazi air attack. Even her puppy is dead.

She wanders the countryside until she's found by Michel, the not-much-older son of a peasant farmer. Michel takes her home, she's informally adopted by his family, and despite being about 5 and 8, they fall in love. No kissy-kissy or anything, but there's no mistaking it.

The girl is (gloriously) free from religion. She doesn't know how to pray, doesn't know who's on a cross on the wall, or why. When such silliness is explained to her, she begins collecting crosses, and cajoling Michel to steal crosses from the church.

Forbidden Games is very calculated — every time Paulette's on screen there's guitar plucking, and Michel's hair is never not photogenically tousled — but the calculations are spot on. Director René Clément drew amazing performances from the kid actors (both of whom followed this with long careers in the cinema). 

There's also an amusing feud between Michel's father and the neighbors, and a thousand ordinary moments that ring as real as a documentary. 

The family and townsfolk are as perfect as the kids, and despite the bleakness of the wartime setting, it's all done with a sense of humor. Just like real people, these characters crack jokes amidst death and in the worst of situations, so there are laughs amidst the tragedy.

Brilliant on all levels and visually flawless (except for the color), this should be seen by anyone with an interest in cinema or humanity. It'll remind you to hate war, certainly, but also to hate grown-ups, and all our stupid ways.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Forbidden Zone (1980)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

In a word, yawn. There's a doorway to the sixth dimension in the basement, but it's a synopsis that's not worth typing.

Movies made cheaply, even poorly — schlock — can be fun if they're done with passion. And occasionally there's schlock that makes so many mistakes it becomes laughably enjoyable, like Empire of the Ants or Mesa of Lost Women. What's no fun at all, never has been and never will be, is any movie that's intentionally trying to be "so bad it's good." 

Case in point: Forbidden Zone, made by Richard Elfman, brother of Danny. Elfman goes for campy laughs in every scene, and comes up laughless again and again. His wife stars, along with Herve Villechaize and Susan Tyrrell. 

"Oh, darn, the fuse blew!"

Verdict: NO.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

Force of Evil (1948)
A Foreign Affair
Fort Apache the Bronx
42nd Street

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
'Movie reviews' that that recount the plot, paragraph after paragraph, suck. My pledge to you: I'll only give the basics of a movie's premise, with no spoilers after that.  
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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