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March 14-20, 2007

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This Week's Revivals

By Richard von Busack

Movie Times The Bitter Tea of General Yen/Flying Down to Rio
(Both 1933) Barbara Stanwyck plays the fiancee of a missionary and finds herself captivated—in both senses of the word—by an Oxford-educated warlord (Nils Asther). The then-unthinkable romance between a Chinese man and a European woman made the film notorious; director Frank Capra even claimed that it was banned in England. It wasn't, writes Capra biographer Joseph McBride (The Catastrophe of Success), but the racist reaction to Bitter Tea can't be exaggerated: Variety noted, "Seeing a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman is bound to evoke adverse reaction." It's the best Von Sternberg movie Von Sternberg never made, and so very unlike Capra because of its sexuality. BILLED WITH Flying Down to Rio. All is not well at Miami's Hotel Hibiscus. An executive from the home office, the Swiss priss Franklin Pangborn, has come to investigate complaints of staff/ guest fraternization. The rumors are all too true, and the worst offender is the bandleader/pilot Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) and his assistant loafer and accordionist, Fred Astaire. Cutting out one step before they're fired, the band—including singer Ginger Rogers as Honey Hale—heads to Rio de Janiero by air. There, Bond runs into his best friend, the Brazilian fiance of the woman Bond last dallied with (the lynx-eyed Dolores del Rio). While the plot thins, Astaire and Rogers pass the time dancing forehead to forehead, emboldened by the new dance craze the Carioca. "All we want in this world is crazy beautiful happiness," says the stunning del Rio, who can't choose between her Brazilian millionaire and the blond millionaire. Meanwhile—this tidbit has its share of meanwhiles—the forces of civic corruption intervene: gamblers try to shut down the Hotel Atlantic. Fortunately, Astaire proves his mettle in an ending of much crazy beautiful happiness: he buzzes the hotel with biplanes loaded with semaphoring, wing-walking strippers. This pre-Code delight is loaded with double entendres (Ginger, in front of a Rio bakery window: "How do you ask for little tarts in Portuguese?"). (Plays Mar 17-18 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times Hollow Triumph/The Seventh Victim
(1948/1943) In Hollow Triumph (a.k.a. The Scar), Paul Henreid plays John Muller, a gangster who has a double—Dr. Victor Bartok, a psychiatrist with a scar. While trying to get rid of Bartok and take his place (including giving himself a home scarification job) in order to hide from the crooks who are hunting him down after a botched casino robbery, Muller becomes involved with the doctor's undiscriminating secretary (film noir mainstay Joan Bennett). Photographed by John Alton and featuring very stunning deep-focus shots. BILLED WITH The Seventh Victim After a title card with an epigraph by John Donne's first Holy Sonnet—"I runne to death, and death meets me as fast / And all my pleasures are like yesterday"—this fatalist horror film commences; it follows a lady (Kim Hunter) trying to find her sister who has been put under sentence of death by a devil-worshipping cult in the depths of Greenwich Village. More about this next week. Produced by Val Lewton. (Plays Mar 21-23 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times White Heat/The Body Snatcher
(1949/1945) "The old knock-down-drag-'em out again, without a touch of imagination or originality. The leading character, Cody Jarrett, was just another murderous thug. For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, 'Let's fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions."—from Cagney by James Cagney. Despite his efforts, it's a middling film lit up with a really out-of-town lead performance: Cagney as a devil on the loose with a machine gun. BILLED WITH The Body Snatcher. Highly recommended; a tragedy as much as a horror film. It's based on the noble old story of Burke and Hare, a true legend visited by everyone from Robert Louis Stevenson to Hammer Studios to Dylan Thomas. 1831: A ruinously proud doctor (Henry Daniell) decides to help himself to the local graveyard for medical cadavers; he's aided by the nicest strangler you'd ever hope to meet, a coachman named Gray (Boris Karloff). A satisfying business for all, but then there is interference by a half-bright underling, played by a dubious foreigner called Bela Lugosi. Director Robert Wise worked under the direction of producer Val Lewton, who once again demonstrated his elegance in the presence of the macabre. Everyone talks about the coach-ride finale; I'd almost trade it for the scene where Karloff enters a dark tunnel to harvest a street singer: greed, pathos, an echo, silence. Then the long slow black fadeout. (Plays Mar 14-16 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

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