She (U.S., 1935) * * *
D: Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel
At certain points during She--the 1935 Merian C. Cooper adaptation of the novel by H. Rider Haggard--I wanted to shout at the TV, "Where have you been all my life?" At other times, I cringed in embarrassment. This is pure pulp extravagance, with a big budget bringing Depression-era audiences savage savages, femme fatales, spectacular sets, a square-jawed hero and improbable fantasy. In the mountains of the frozen Arctic, adventurer Leo (Randolph Scott), his girl Tanya (Helen Mack), and scientific researcher Horace (Nigel Bruce, best known as the most famous screen incarnation of Dr. Watson) search for a legendary flame which can bestow eternal life upon those who bathe in its fires. Instead, they encounter the aforementioned savages, as well as a secret kingdom ruled by an immortal queen (Helen Gahagan). "She" believes that Leo is the reincarnation of her lover from 500 years before--whom she murdered out of jealousy, mind you, though she wants to make it up to him. Horace urges Leo to find out the secret of the magical flame, and the queen tries to convince Leo that he's her one and only--while privately attempting to put Tanya to death. This appealing boy's adventure goes down easy, and with a budget flush from King Kong profits (Cooper's 1933 success), you get some really stunning visuals, including a battle at the edge of a cliff, a wall of smoke through which the queen commands her minions, the shimmering lights of the immortal flame in a narrow, hidden cave, and the Art Deco sets themselves, immense, set against detailed and realistic matte paintings, but permeated with touches of Caligari-esque Expressionism. The vast gates that lead into the palace are meant to recall King Kong, but make no logical sense within the story, except to suggest that all which follows is the product of a Kong-sized imagination. Alas that more illogic pops up here and there (if this is the Arctic, why are all the natives half-naked?), and the characters are often given stupid dialogue, particularly the doltish hero, who understands things about ten minutes after the audience has. It's still a must-see for anyone with a weakness for these cliches. It's also fun to spot the moments which influenced later films: "She" dons a crown and garb which makes her strongly resemble the evil Queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); the high priest, conducting a human sacrifice, dons a shaggy horned helmet like Mola Ram's in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in the same scene where an extra swings from the center of the temple to an outcropping, and back, a la Indiana Jones in that film. Of course it all resembles the entertainments of Ray Harryhausen, too, even though there aren't any monsters; Harryhausen, a big fan, provides a commentary track on the new DVD from Kino and Legend Films. Harryhausen struck a deal with Legend to colorize his film 20 Million Miles to Earth, and She is colorized also, although you can watch it in black and white if you're some kind of, you know, purist or something. While one can theoretically defend Harryhausen's decision to colorize 20 Million Miles to Earth--it's really his film, and he claims it would have been in color if the budget had allowed for that--there's no point in colorizing She except to make it more garish and absurd.
And really, why would you want to? The original's black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and appears to be drawn in broad charcoal-pencilstrokes. It actually resembles the preproduction drawings of Harryhausen himself, if you've seen his recent art books. Now that we live in an age where films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are made--deliberately meant to invoke this kind of retro-pulp world, and shot with the colors drained out by computer--you have to wonder why Legend Films thinks there's an audience for a colorized film. Let's face it, thanks to DVD, film buffs are a dime a dozen (same goes for blogs like this one). There's a big enough audience for the untouched She.
The Apple (U.S., 1980) *
D: Menahem Golan
Speaking of spectacles, I can't recommend The Apple too strongly. Is it terrible? Oh yes. Oh God yes. But it is a time capsule--not of 1994, the year in which it takes place, but of 1980, just before the 70's had completely expired, but certainly when disco was on its way out. Nobody told director Menahem Golan (later to produce, with partner Yoram Globus, many of the cheesiest films of that decade), whose film imagines that disco will live on and on, to eventually topple the government until all of our lives are controlled by a music producer named Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal), who is most certainly the Devil Incarnate. Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour) are country bumpkins (although apparently he's Scottish and she's not) and a singing folk duo, innocent and pure, and when Alphie refuses to sign Mr. Boogalow's contract, he helplessly watches as Bibi does--and becomes an international, soulless superstar. Alphie tries to win her back. He does. They live in a hippie commune for a year, before Mr. Boogalow and his stormtroopers find them, and there's a deus ex machina which actually involves God. The spectacularly crappy songs are by one Coby Recht, who has done--uh, let me look at at IMDB--nothing else. His lyrics are so consistently obvious and stupid as to make one wonder if it's not some brilliant bit of subversive parody; alas, the film's satire is much too obvious for that. But the film is undeniably entertaining and consistently hysterical. If you're having a group of friends over on a Saturday night, show them The Apple. But serve drinks. You'll need them.