Tag Archives: 1950s

Macao

Macao starring one of our favorite half-asleep actors, Robert Mitchum, is an exceptionally good thriller, not exactly a noir film but a solid old school crime thriller with good pacing, cool characters, and a great twist. Despite the exotic setting, it doesn’t bank too heavily on the “shadowy Chinatown” style of filmmaking, and there are no Caucasians in fake eyelids parading about. Actually, no, there is apparently one, but it’s so well done that i didn’t even notice. In fact, there are very few Asian characters at all, other than a couple of assassins and a lot of background extras. Instead, the film focuses on a small group of ex-patriots who have converged on the infamously decadent and borderline lawless Portuguese colony.

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Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla

If you were one of the few who followed the joint Magic Lizard Twitter-thon that involved The Cultural Gutter, Die Danger Die Die Kill, WtF-Film, and Teleport City, you might recall that proclamations of Magic Lizard‘s status as the worst movie ever made were challenged — legitimately — by The Cultural Gutter, who maintained that even the deepest of wounds inflicted by Magic Lizard were mere surface abrasions when measured against the to-the-core cutting of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a cheap and lazy starring vehicle for Martin and Lewis copycats Duke Mitchell (yes, the same Duke Mitchell who later went on to make Massacre Mafia Style) and Sammy Petrillo (yes, the same Sammy Petrillo who later went on to star in Doris Wishman’s Keyholes are for Peeping). The movie had previously been experienced as one of Drive-In Mob’s Tweet-alongs. And as you might guess from the title, Bela Lugosi shows up (though he barely seems cognisant of the fact) to earn himself a little more morphine money and does indeed encounter a gorilla from — but not in — Brooklyn. While the Cultural Gutter’s Carol boasts writing about comics as her primary forte, she’s no slouch when it comes to cinema, and so I did not take her challenge to Magic Lizard‘s throne lightly. In fact, I’d been hearing for years how awful Brooklyn Gorilla was from people possessed of substantial strength when it comes to tackling the very worst cinema has to offer.

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Blood of the Vampire

I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.

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Underworld Beauty

Ever since his rediscovery, it seems like Seijun Suzuki has had the term “Maverick Director” permanently affixed to his name like some kind of mandatory honorific. However, given the rigidity of the Japanese studio system within which he spent his peak years, Suzuki never would have had the opportunity to achieve that maverick status had he not at some point been able to tow the line and deliver the straightforward genre pictures that he had been hired to create. That he was capable of doing that and then some is more than amply demonstrated by Underworld Beauty, an outstanding little noir programmer that he directed during his early years at Nikkatsu.

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The Maze


There are a lot of times when I don’t remember a movie (sometimes mere hours after watching it), but I remember a particular scene or vague theme from the movie. This has come up several times before. For instance, before I rewatched it, all I could remember about Treasure of the Four Crowns was the scene where fireballs on ridiculously visible wires were flying around. With Sword and the Sorcerer, even though I watched that movie about seven billion times when I was ten years old, all I could remember was “guy falls into room of naked women” and “guy makes witch’s chest explode, then catches her heart.” Although there were many times when I remembered both the scene and the title of the movie in which it appeared, there are many other times when I have no recollection at all of the film’s title. It is in these instances that the Internet has proven to finally be worth all the trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of social and technological evolution finally lead to the moment when I can look up “screaming banshee on moors” and find out in which movie it appears.

That movie was, of course, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I thought it was Cry of the Banshee, but when I rewatched that film, I found that it contained no screaming banshee on the moors, or any banshee of any type for that matter. Luckily, the internet was there for me. And it was there for me again, very recently, when I was trying to remember the title of a movie about which all I could recall was, “frog man in center of hedge maze.” Actually, I remembered one other scene, which was of a woman looking out a dusty window and seeing some creepy guy in a cape dashing across the moonlit lawn, but it turns out that was a bizarre combination of a bit from The Maze combined with a bit from, I’ve been told, Munsters Go Home.


This time, the movie was The Maze, and when I finally tracked it down (because even if something isn’t in print, the internet also helps you find old copies), I discovered two ways in which my memory was faulty. First, of course, was the fact that I couldn’t remember the title of the movie I’d seen. Second, it turns out I’d never seen the movie. Yet still the concept “frog man in center of hedge maze” haunted me. It turns out that, when I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me the plot of this movie as a spooky bedtime story. Granted, stories about murderous frog men lurking in the center of a hedge maze may seem like a strange bedtime story, but I was a strange kid, and anyway, children’s bedtime stories used to be all full of cannibalism and witches and trolls who steal the fingernails of naughty little boys and girls who don’t eat their stinky boiled kale. In comparison to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, regaling me with the adventures of a man-frog in a hedge maze is small potatoes. But it did result in me spending most of my life thinking I’d seen the movie — which, as I explained, I discovered to be untrue once I actually did watch it. It also fueled, or so my theory goes, by continuing obsession with hedge mazes, especially hedge mazes that are occupied by weird magical creatures and monsters. Preferably sexy, naked nymphs and such, because if I have to be murdered by a charming but malicious magical being, I’d much rather it be a sexy flying girl with pointy ears and no clothes than a lurching man-frog in a threadbare suit or a shirtless guy with goat legs and a fondness for Zamfir records.

While I was disappointed in the subjectivity of my memory — what other grand adventures are merely lies I told myself so many times that even I started to believe them — I was happy to have this movie on hand to watch for the first time, even if the big reveal of the ghoulish dark family secret was already known to me. In fact, knowing the shock ending ahead of time is probably or th better. If you went into this film with some degree of anticipation, after all, the big reveal would be something of a letdown, to say the least. Conversely, if you go into a movie knowing little about it other than “frog man in center of hedge maze,” it’s much easier to be pleasantly surprised by the bulk of the film and pleasantly amused by the shoddiness of the nightmarish man in a monster suit waiting for you at the center of the labyrinth.


The Maze is a film tailor-made to appeal to me. It has a gloomy castle, gratuitous fog, a hedge maze, a cute woman in a bullet bra, creepy butlers, secret passages, and a “jolly good, old chap” kind of guy who smokes a pipe and enjoys motoring through the countryside whilst wearing his Harris tweed. And, of course, it’s got the man-frog. It’s black and white, and since it’s the sort of movie that is unlikely to ever be lovingly restored — that exhaustive process being restricted to classic works of art like Caligula and Zombie Lake — it remains available primarily in grainy, murky bootleg copies. Now, I’ve never been a quality freak, especially for old films. For newer ones, yeah sure. I want them looking the way they’re supposed to, at the correct aspect ration, in the correct language, with all the scenes intact. But for a lot of old films, I kind of like seeing them all grainy and beat up, with the dust specks and the random missing frames and that greatest of old film friends, the stray piece of hair. Not that I would turn down a proper copy of The Maze, or of any old film, but having a pristine and remastered version doesn’t mean that I’ll be willing to get rid of my crappy old copy. What I would like to see is a copy of The Maze that restores the film to its full 3D glory, even though from what I can judge, the 3D would be pretty lackluster, unless you are really excited by gratuitous “bat flies at the camera” 3D effects.

Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) is about to married to his lovely fiancee, Kitty (Veronica Hurst), and to celebrate they are frolicking in some sun-kissed paradise with, for some reason, Kitty’s dry-witted aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). Fun in the sun is interrupted when Gerald gets an urgent telegram from his uncle. It turns out that Gerald has a family castle in the highlands of Scotland, and all sorts of weird things happen in it. As a boy, Gerald remembers being locked in his room at night whenever he and his family visited the castle, and that there was a massive hedge maze into which no one was ever allowed. He departs to tend to whatever emergency his uncle has been contacted about, but Kitty and Edith become increasingly worried when they receive no word from him. When a letter does arrive, it only distresses them more. Gerald calls off the wedding, breaks his engagement to Kitty, and forbids them from ever visiting or contacting him again. Kitty is understandably perplexed, and rather than merely accept Gerald bizarre, out of the blue proclamation, she and Edith pack up and head for Scotland to see what’s up at the ominously named Craven Castle.


Gerald is, needless to say, distressed by their sudden arrival, just as they are distressed by the fact that his hair has turned white and he seems to have aged considerably. He is adamant that they must leave immediately, but Kitty keeps devising excuses to stick around until she has figured out what the heck is going on and why Gerald has suddenly become so hostile and elusive. Clues begin to prevent themselves later that very night, when they hear Gerald and his two servants dragging something out of the off-limits guard tower and into the maze. Kitty discovers a secret passage in her room that leads to a long-forgotten room with a window (most of the windows in the castle have long since been bricked up) and observes the men hauling something into the maze. On the second night, Edith fakes out Gerald and leaves her room before it is locked for the night. While exploring the castle, she stumbles across…some hideous thing…that scurries from her view an disappears into the shadows before she can get a proper look at it. This tears it for Gerald, who insists that they get lost. Kitty counters by arranging to have a group of their friends show up, hoping that familiar faces and friendship will snap Gerald out of his funk and force him to come clean about the mysterious shenanigans. Her scheme almost works. Gerald even smiles at some point. But then it all goes horribly wrong. Everything comes to a head that night, and the horrible truth is revealed.

The Maze depends heavily on atmosphere. For the bulk of the movie, very little actually happens. Small tidbits are thrown the viewer’s way to keep them interested — a fleeting glimpse of a glistening creature, a weird webbed footprint, the frequent foreboding stares of the butlers — but if this sort of movie isn’t your thing, it’s going to bore you pretty quickly. Lucky for me, this sort of movie is my thing, and I found the whole thing engrossing. Richard Carlson, who already had a long list of credits, including at least one other Scotland-based horror tale (an episode of Lights Out entitled “The Devil in Glencairn”), does a wonderful job of transforming Gerald from happy-go-lucky regular guy to world-weary crank, and he does so in a manner that makes you both sympathetic (you know he bears some horrible family secret) and irritated (why won’t he just trust someone?). But then, I guess I’ve never had a giant frog for a great great great great uncle, so who am I to judge? I do, however, have an uncle who refuses to put his teeth in, and I don’t think it’s an entirely dissimilar circumstance.


Veronica Hurst, aside from being gorgeous, also does fairly well with a character who stays within the realistic bounds of femininity at the time (oh for the days women investigated unspeakable horrors whilst dressed in a shimmering cocktail dress and heels) but also emerges as strong-willed and determined in her unwillingness to simply let Gerald be a spooky jerk. That said, she may be one of the worst amateur sleuths in the history of amateur sleuthing. Although she constantly foils Gerald’s plans to send her and Edith away, nothing ever really comes of the time she buys herself. Edith, for that matter, is set up as sort of the stolid voice of reason, but her sneaking about never bears much fruit, either. It gets to be frustrating at points, and even though both women are fairly well portrayed for the time, one can’t help but with there was a bit more of the modern in them, thus allowing Kitty to grab Gerald by his tweed lapels and knock some sense into him. I mean, he has a dark spooky family secret, but it’s not that dark or spooky. Kitty sort of stand sup to him by defying his orders to skedaddle, but it would have been nice to see her actually confront the guy and not let him glower and frown his way out of it.

The supporting cast,lead by Katherine Emery as Edith and Michael Pate as William the butler, is also excellent. With the exception of Veronica Hurst, who was only in her very early twenties at the time, The Maze is yet another in a long line of classic examples of how a film can be lent an added air of gravity and importance by filling the cast with actual adults rather than teenagers. These are all experienced players, and they handle the film with dedication, so much so that when the final reveal of the creature proves to be somewhat comical both by today’s standards as well as, I would assume, the standards of the time, it hardly matters. They sell it regardless, and after the initial guffaw at the sight of this man-frog, The Maze makes it really easy to get over creature design short-comings. It helps that the creature is only on screen for a brief moment, but what helps more is that the entire cast sells the tragedy of the situation.


There is also some attempt to justify scientifically the appearance of the creature, who it turns out, is a horribly deformed member of the MacTeam family. Kitty discovers Gerald reading a book about human deformation, and Gerald explains that the human fetus goes through many stages of evolution before obtaining its final form, including one that is amphibian in nature. As with most horror film science, the end result is somewhat dubious but wholly believable within the confines of the film’s reality. Once again, this is the product of a cast that is committed to selling the plot of the film, even at its most outlandish moments.

Complimenting and, usually, overpowering the cast is the cinematography, production design, and director. William Cameron Menzies isn’t exactly a well-known name among modern horror fans, but he directed a number of early horror efforts, including 1931’s The Spider and 1932’s Chandu the Magician, both films that drew heavily upon the world of magic and illusionists, as well as 1936’s Things to Come (based on the predictions of H.G. Wells) and 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad. However, what’s probably more important to the success of The Maze is his long career and vast experience as a production designer and art director. In this role, Menzies is perhaps better known. His experience in this field reaches as far back as 1918 and includes a whole slew of famous films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdhad, Pride of the Yankees, and in 1939, a little something called Gone with the Wind. A couple Oscars and a few other assorted awards later, he found himself directing The Maze, as well as serving as the film’s art and production designer. These multiple roles make it possible to say that the movie is, every step of the way, the director’s vision. It also means that the guy responsible for the burning of Atlanta sequence is also the guy responsible for the man-frog in this film. Menzies was no stranger to horror of science fiction, having previously directed the sci-fi cult classic Invaders from Mars. Although the direction itself in The Maze is best characterized as “blandly competent,” the unassuming nature of the direction allows the mood to take center stage.

And that’s a wise decision, since it’s the film’s strongest character and was obviously the aspect in which Menzies was more interested. We barely get a glimpse of Craven Castle (obviously because of budgetary concerns — this is a low budget film, after all), but when we do, it is all twisted brambles and gnarled trees. When Kitty and Edith first arrive, the moors are awash in fog. Everything inside the castle is shadows and gloom. Even when sets aren’t draped in moroseness and cobwebs, it feels like they are. When the atmosphere takes front stage, the film is very effective. When it relies on the script, it is decidedly less so. And even within Menzies’ otherwise acceptable if pedestrian directing style, there are a number of curious decisions. Most noticeable is the bizarre set-up during narration sequences featuring Katherine Emery, which are framed so that she is visible from the chin up at the very bottom of the screen, with the rest of the frame filled with nondescript ceiling and room. If I had to guess, I would say this was not an artistic decision, but was rather the product of a camera being improperly positioned and there not being enough time, money, or interest in reshooting these sequences. Still, these are minor gaffes in comparison to the film’s biggest misstep, which is promising a horrible monster terrifying beyond all belief and then delivering…well, you know by now.


Augie Lohman was the special effects supervisor, so one has to assume that blame for the appearance of The Maze‘s signature monster should be pinned on him — though Menzies ultimately made the decision to go with the creation. Judging by his long list of credits, which includes special effects for everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick to Barbarella, one has to assume that Lohman was good at what he did. But The Maze represents his first real foray into the realm of the fantastic, having previously worked on adventure and crime films. I don’t know if it was his relative inexperience (hard to believe since three years later he was working magic in Moby Dick), or a function of time and money that resulted in the final product. To some degree, he was hamstrung by the story. The Maze was based on a novel by Maurice Sandoz, so the nature of the beast as already set. I would imagine that even the most adept effects man in the early 1950s would have a hard time when saddled with the assignment “make me a man-frog!” Modern effects technology could probably dream up something more effective, but then, modern scripting would probably ditch the idea of a frog entirely and go with something more legitimately terrifying, like a boll weevil or a marmoset. So maybe Lohman was just faced with an impossible task and did the best he could.

Which, in all honesty, was pretty bad. If you didn’t know ahead of time that the monster was going to be a colossal let-down, then that first reveal, when Kitty stumbled upon the creature while wandering desperately through the maze, would pretty much undo all the hard work the atmosphere of dread put into the rest of the film. To make matters worse, rather than walking upright like a man, the frog creature is down on all fours — which might have worked it the suit was designed to better mimic a four-legged creature. Instead, it’s designed in the same way that the Anguilas costume from the Godzilla movies was designed, meaning that the hind legs are bent because the guy in the suit is just crawling around. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems like even the makers of The Maze couldn’t justify trying to pass off a frog’s “ribbit” as a terrifying noise and so instead rely on…elephant noises? Huh. How about that? The end effect is singularly laughable.

On the scale of scary animals, frogs have to be at the bottom of the list. I mean, maybe even lower than giant killer bunnies. Sure, some people think frogs are “icky,” and like me, many of you know from first-hand knowledge that if you catch one, they are going to defend themselves by peeing on your hand, but other than that, the number of people genuinely terrified by frogs must be very small and limited to a few women who had bad experiences as girls with naughty little country boys dropping frogs down the back of their dress (not that I ever did that to anyone), and members of various Amazonian tribes who have to deal with those frogs that are the size of a fingernail but will cause you to die an agonizing and certain death by poison if you touch them. Oh, and maybe Spider-Man, who I think once tackled a dastardly frog guy. Even the Australians, who have come as close to anyone to doing actual real world combat against giant frogs, consider them a nuisance more than a nightmare of hell that will cause a woman to hold her left hand up in front of her face while biting the knuckles on her right. I mean, sure. If I was out at night, wandering through the hedge maze of a spooky Scottish castle, and I stumbled upon a gigantic frog, I’m sure I’d be taken aback, perhaps even a little startled. But once the initial shock wears off, and provided he doesn’t shoot a gigantic sticky tongue out at me, I think I’d recover fairly quickly and go into “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” mode — which is a mode I go into with disturbing frequency.

It should be noted, however, that the above statement is only suitable for instances in which you encounter an actual giant frog in a hedge maze or a haunted cove. Saying “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” whilst in a gym locker room or standing at the urinals lends the phrase an entirely different and perhaps controversial air.


In the end, though, the monster is played more for tragedy than terror, so if you know in advance that the build-up is let down by what’s being built up to, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the movie, have you chuckle at the sight of the monster when it finally shows up, then move on with very little harm done. There have certainly been sillier looking monsters (Giant Claw, I’m looking in your direction), but few that are surrounded by as much somber atmosphere and seriousness.

I have a tremendous affinity for this film, even though I think when my mom told it to me as a bedtime story, she changed things up a bit. Because I’m pretty sure in my version of the movie, the man-frog lived in the center of the maze (in actuality, he lives in the locked guard tower and is carried tot he maze at night so he can swim in the pond in its center) and the dragging and scraping sounds were made by the servants dragging some poor chump out to the maze to be eaten alive (the reality in the movie being that the monster never actually kills anyone, though one maid dies of fright upon seeing it). But still, after setting the record straight in my own mind, I still think The Maze is an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, film that boasts some tremendous mood and a hearty chuckle. The script does tend to run in place for too long — Kitty diligently investigates the situation but never makes any real progress — but I have a pretty high tolerance for films comprised mostly of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping scotch and pondering things. I didn’t find The Maze to be boring even when it was biding its time, and I think the build-up is quite nice even if the pay-off is more side-splitting than horrifying. Screenwriter Daniel Ullman, who worked mostly in television but also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island (where his script is once again upstaged by production design and special effects), redeems himself int he film’s final moments, which actually succeed in making you feel sorry for our doomed man-frog beastie, but the bulk of The Maze, be warned, is people sitting in chairs discussing things that should be resolved much quicker than they are.

So I reckon if you are looking for a great monster and cracking good dialog, you’re probably better off elsewhere. But I found a lot to like in The Maze, even if my mom’s version of the movie was better, and I would gladly wander through it again…even knowing what’s waiting in the center for me.

Release Year: 1953 | Country: United States | Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lillian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes | Writer: Daniel Ullman | Director: William Cameron Menzies | Cinematographer: Harry Neumann and William Menzies | Music: Marlin Skiles

The Mummy

Ahh, Sangster and Fisher. If you want my opinion, and you must or else you’d go read a much better website that this, that screenwriter-director team is as integral to the success of the Hammer horror films as the Cushing-Lee acting team. When you make a list of the best films Hammer produced, the Fisher-Sangster duo comes up quite frequently. The whole quartet is at it again with this, Hammer’s third reimagining of a classic Universal Pictures horror icon. By now, there was no real gamble involved in the Hammer formula. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula had proven the effort, and Hammer’s only challenge now lie in maintaining the high standards set by those two films. With two Universal legends left, those being the mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer decided to go all old Egypt and bring the bandaged avenger of desecrated tombs into the Technicolor world of Hammer horror.

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Horror of Dracula

Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula is, without a doubt (at least in my mind), the absolute best vampire film ever made, and quite simply one of the finest examples of proper Gothic horror that’s ever been filmed. It was a busy couple of years for Britain’s Hammer Studio. In 1955, their sci-fi/horror thriller based on the popular TV character Quatermass became a smash hit, and the studio soon learned it was because audiences were hungry for shocking, boundary-pushing films of the fantastic and horrible that still handled themselves with a degree of wit, intelligence, and dignity as would befit a rousing British tale of terror. Inspired by that film’s success, execs turned to studio director Terence Fisher to rework Mary Shelley’s classic tale of Gothic horror, Frankenstein. It was a risky move for any number of obvious reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Universal’s Boris Karloff version of the monster was practically a global icon. Hammer had to come up with a completely new approach to the monster’s appearance, since the Universal version was copyrighted, and they figured that while doing so, they might as well ratchet up the sex and violence and see just how much they’d be able to get away with in a horror movie.

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And God Created Woman

This sun-drenched French production set in St. Tropez, one of the first for that country shot in color and scope, is famous — or notorious, if you prefer — for several reasons. For starters, it is the film that launched the career of Roger Vadim, a member of the French new wave in cinema who looked at his films as more of a fashion and art design show than as a way to actually tell a story. His tendency to romance beautiful women, them feature them in his films wearing as little as he could get away with, is among his many great contributions to global society. And here, in his debut film, he decided to give the world Brigitte Bardot.

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Curse of Frankenstein

Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.

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Mambo Girl

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This classic from the vaults of Hong Kong’s illustrious Cathay Studios begins with a shot of Golden Age screen icon Grace Chang shaking her bon-bon to a Latin-flavored mambo number while wearing cute, checkered capri pants. It’s already one of the best movies ever made in my book, as anything that gives us Grace Chang in classic 1950s form-fitting fashion is an ace. Not that I’m one to judge a movie solely on the merits of its leading lady’s rump nor on its inclusion of what is still, in my opinion, the paramount of women’s pant technology. You know me. I’m a classic guy with classic tastes, and while booty shorts and flares may be alright for some of you, I’ll take the more demure and alluring look of capri pants, a nice cocktail dress, or one of those cheongsam dresses any day over the vulgar obviousness or careless sloppiness of today’s fashion. But that’s just me, and like I said, you can’t judge a movie purely on it’s willingness to cater to my retro taste in both male and female fashion or my longing for a return to the days when we wore clothing that actually fit us.

Luckily, the film that follows the rump-shaking opening is a wonderful, breezy affair from the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. It was a time when the silver screen was ruled by the likes of Linda Lin Dai and the subject of this particular movie, Grace Chang. Grace was the reigning queen of Cathay Studios, one of the greatest and most respected studios in the history of Asian film. Few and far between were the films that didn’t feature Grace singing, dancing, and flashing her million dollar smile at the camera. She was the total package – a wonderful singer, a unique beauty, and an utterly captivating actress. Unfortunately, the bulk of her work – and indeed the bulk of Cathay’s films in general – were unknown outside of Asia. They disappeared after their initial theatrical runs, and only a few ever showed up on any home video format. When the rare film did make it to video or DVD, it was almost always without subtitles. Thus, some of the most important films and names in Hong Kong’s impressive cinematic history remained virtually unknown to new viewers.

In 2003, however, fortune smiled on fans of classic cinema from around the globe when Panorama Entertainment inked a deal to release a slew of old Cathay films on DVD complete with English subtitles. Though the deal was less trumpeted than Celestial’s similar deal to tap the hitherto hidden history of the Shaw Bros. Studio for home consumption, it was certainly no less historic or important. And while the fact that most of the Cathay films are dramas, musicals, and comedies in black and white means that western Hong Kong film fans (traditionally very action film oriented) will be paying less attention to them than to the Shaw Bros. releases, any film buff worth his or her salt knows that just because a film isn’t in color and doesn’t feature a shirtless Ti Lung getting stabbed in the belly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. For fans of filmmaking from the glorious decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the tapping of the Cathay well is a glorious event.

It’s fitting that Panorama’s Cathay releases are hitting the shelves the same time as the Shaw Bros. releases. They were, of course, the primary competition for the Shaws (and both studios shared some major stars, including the impish Peter Chan Ho and the regal Linda Lin Dai), and their history is similar to that of the Shaw Bros. Like Shaw, Cathay had its roots in Southeast Asia. Studio founder Loke Wan Tho began making films in the late 1930’s when his family began establishing theaters in Singapore. As was often the case at the time, companies who made movies usually also owned their own theater chains (a practice that is coming somewhat back into vogue with the establishment of UA theaters in America. It never really went out of vogue in Asia). Loke’s theaters were state-of -the-art, and after the close of World War II he cemented a deal to distribute British Rank films in South Asia. In the 1950’s, Loke moved the business to Hong Kong, purchased a studio lot, and formed MP & GI, which would later change its name to Cathay.

As with the Shaw Studios, Cathay was keen on seeking out and developing new talent, then signing them to exclusive contracts. While the Shaws initially had a good balance of male and female superstars that, during the 1970s, eventually became primarily male-dominated thanks to the popularity of Shaw kungfu films, Cathay was always a woman’s world that was known for a stunning array of actresses who easily overshadowed their male counterparts at nearly every moment. Cathay built its success around a core group of female stars that included Linda Lin Dai, Jeanette Lin, Julie Yeh Feng, Lucilla You, Betty Loh Ti, Li Mei, and of course Grace Chang, among others. Cathay films and stars were highly regarded by critics and fans alike, and the studio exhibited a consistently high quality in the vast majority of what it produced. But, as we all know, nothing gold can stay, especially eras.

By the mid-60’s the studio began to decline. Loke died in a plane crash in 1964, and the Shaw Brothers productions began to eclipse those of Cathay. The Shaws simply had more money to throw into their projects, and they lured away a number of Cathay’s biggest stars, chief among them Linda Lin Dai. By the end of the decade, the Cathay Studio had lost nearly all direction. Whimsical romantic comedies and dramas, especially in black and white, were no longer as popular as they had once been. Cathay was sold to a young upstart studio that would eventually do to the Shaw Bros. what the Shaws ultimately did to Cathay – drive it out of business. That upstart studio was Golden Harvest, the eventual home of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan.

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But there for a while, no one could match Cathay in terms of star power and picture quality. And if your studio has to have a poster girl, you can sure do a heck of a lot worse than Grace Chang. It doesn’t take long to immediately fall in love with her and start putting her name atop your list of favorite actresses. There’s something special about her, something unique. She’s not a classic beauty, but that makes her beauty all the more memorable. Her popularity is, instead, driven by her undeniable charisma and overpowering charm. Where Hollywood (and indeed Hong Kong) was full of sultry sirens and bombshells, Grace Chang was the woman you could always trust to be your friend, to be dependable and friendly and down to earth. You could also count on her to sing you a song. Unlike many actresses who were featured prominently in Hong Kong musicals, Grace could belt out her own tunes.

Grace was born in 1934 in Nanjing but grew up in Shanghai. It was there, in what was far and away the mainland’s most cosmopolitan and swinging city, that she trained in Peking Opera. After the tumult of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, Grace and her family moved to Hong Kong in 1949. She made her film debut in Seven Sisters (1953) and joined MP & GI in 1955. Her film and singing careers soared after that, and she quickly became one of the top stars of stage and screen. Her singing talent even garnered her an appearance on America’s Dinah Shore Show. She married in 1964, and like most Hong Kong actresses, her marriage heralded her virtual retirement from show business. She still makes occasional appearances though, and she’s left us a tremendous film legacy that new fans are only just now beginning to discover.

Mambo Girl, the first of Panorama’s Cathay DVD releases (and chronologically, the earliest film), is an excellent way to get to know the work of both the studio and Grace Chang. Although for the most part it’s a breezy musical comedy, unlike most films from that particularly light-hearted genre, it has a darker, more serious current running through it that allows it to make a social comment without seeming too heavy-handed. As the story of the making of the film goes, Grace was performing for troops in Taiwan and had them so enthralled with her mambo dancing that they started calling her Mambo Girl. Scriptwriter Yi Wen was then inspired by her popularity to write a quick little film around the name. Another story, as told by Grace herself, maintains that the idea for the film came during an evening at a nightclub where Cathay founder Loke was so impresses with her dancing and singing that he decided a movie should be made. Whichever version of the story is true, the fact remains that someone somewhere saw Grace singing and dancing and simply had to make a movie for her where she could do the same.

Grace stars as Li Kia-ling, the celebrated Mambo Girl as she is known on campus. She’s the all-American (or All-Hong Kong, I suppose) gal who gets good grades, always treats her fellow students with equality and respect, and is a vastly talented singer and dancer. I guess they don’t have students like this anymore. They’ve sort of gone the way of those 1950s scientists who knew everything about history, geology, astronomy, physics, and handling various handguns and rifles. I suppose its students like Grace Change who grow up to be those professional know-it-alls like John Agar, though I have a hard time imagining John Agar busting out the mambo moves. Kia-ling’s life is pretty good. Aside from being the sweetheart of the campus, she has a cool little sister and a father who owns a toy store and, when neighbors come by to ask them to turn down the mambo music, tells the neighbors to take a hike. Rather than being the movie parent who attempts to crush the musical dreams of his child, he encourages her at every step and is just about the coolest movie dad you could hope for. Her father is played by Liu Enjia, probably one of the best male leads at Cathay and one of their only men to not be overshadowed by the ladies. He’s a big, fat jolly guy, after all, and it’s hard to overshadow big, fat jolly guys. He was Cathay’s go-to man whenever they needed a solid father figure, and he’s best known for his roles here and in the successful cross-cultural comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth.

All the boys at school fawn over Kia-ling, chief among them Peter Chan Ho. If you watch enough musicals and comedies from either Cathay or the Shaw Bros., you better get used to Peter Chan Ho. He seems to star in dang near every one of them, and for a relatively average looking guy, he’s managed to romance everyone from Grace Chang to Linda Lin Dai to Cheng Pei-pei. I really wish I had this guy’s agent. Peter’s a ubiquitous fixture in the musical films of the 60s and 70s, and he’s a pretty likable guy who emanates an everyman kind of charm. He’s not always believable in his roles, especially when he plays a lady killer kind of character, but he has a certain underdog charisma about him that, while not nearly as magical as Grace’s, makes you root for the guy. When Peter and the boys aren’t studying, and they rarely seem to study, they’re following Kia-ling around and urging her to sing and dance. You know the scene. It’s been in countless musicals, and in the background is always a guy I simply know as Tennis Racket Lad. If you ever seen a musical comedy set at the beach, a college campus, or a summer resort, then you’ve probably spied the Tennis Racket Lad. He’s the guy in the chorus of nameless friends who, when song and dance breaks out, always has a tennis racket which he pretends to strum like a guitar. I’ve seen Tennis Racket lad in at least a dozen films, and I’m sure he shows up in a dozen more.

Kia-ling’s life is turned upside down when her little sister discovers the older sibling she idolizes is in fact adopted. When she confesses this to her best friend, who also happens to be incredibly jealous of Kia-ling’s popularity with the boys, the girls, the teachers, the janitors, and everyone else in Hong Kong, word gets around to Kia-ling’s friends, and eventually to Kia-ling herself. Although her rival tries to make it a point to insult our darling Mambo Girl, none of her friend seem to care. She’s much too charming, and her adopted parents are so cool anyway. Kia-ling, however, is upset by the revelation and wants to seek out her real mother. Along the way, she will discover the true meaning of family, and there will be many musical numbers.

Running just under the surface is a message about the many Chinese people finding themselves in Hong Kong, especially after the revolution and Mao’s increasingly totalitarian (and deadly) handling of the country. Multitudes of Mainlanders suddenly found themselves separated from their motherland and seeking shelter in the arms of Hong Kong. Seeing parallel between Kia-ling and the Mainland immigrants, between her choice of biological mother or adopted parents versus mother China or the adopted homeland of Hong Kong, doesn’t take a genius. But it does, as I said, lend the film a deeper quality than one usually finds in these sorts of films. Most people, however, are not going to seek out a musical comedy called Mambo Girl in hopes of gleaning insight into the mental state of Chinese people seeking to make new lives for themselves in Hong Kong. For a movie like this, what it has on the surface is just as important, if not more so, than what lies beneath. And the surface of Mambo Girl is a pure delight. Grace’s performance is wonderful, and the music is catchy and enjoyable. As one would guess from the title, much of the music is infused with a Latin vibe, something that was very popular with lots of pop music from the era. Grace’s mambo numbers swing, though the lyrics are just about the squarest things imaginable. I doubt Yma Sumac or other mambo legends belted out words like, “You’re a lucky girl. We call you the Mambo Girl. You are the sweetheart in your family. You are the queen in the school.” Not exactly lyrical spiciness to go with the beat, but the infectious tunes will stick with you regardless of how corny the words may be.

The musical numbers are nothing lavish. They’re fairly well grounded in reality and most take place in nightclubs, sporting fields, or people’s living rooms. The dances aren’t extravagant either, but instead look like something an actual person might do. Well, make that an actual person who knows how to mambo and cha-cha. If I was the “actual” person, it’d look less like a dance and more like some old man having a seizure. The fact that movie embraces these modern dances and modern modes of dress so energetically is also a mark of distinction. Many films of the era reflect old fashioned mores regarding singing and dancing, especially as a way of life. How many movies are there where a woman falls upon hard times and is forced to eek out an existence as a nightclub singer, a profession that garners her much attention but no respect? Kia-ling’s parents, on the other hand, break from tradition by enthusiastically supporting their daughter’s talents and preaching the benefits to mind and body of having some good, clean fun. It is another way in which her adopted parents symbolize the new, modern Hong Kong and new, modern ideas. By contrast, Kia-ling’s real mother is the type of lonely torch-singing forlorn woman we see in so many other movies. A product, if you will, of outdated thinking and ideals.

The supporting cast does their best to keep pace with the leading lady. Liu Enjia is wonderful as her father, Peter Chan Ho is likable as her boyfriend, and Kia-ling’s real mother is suitably tragic in true melodrama form. For an interesting Shaw Bros connection, future Shaw empress Mona Fong (who was one of the major players as a producer at Shaw Bros, and quite possibly as powerful – if not more powerful – than the brothers who lent the studio their name) makes an appearance as a singer in a nightclub Kia-ling visits in search of her real mother. The real shining star among the supporting cast is Kitty Ting Hao as Kia-ling’s younger sister. She’s cute and energetic, and her performance is superb. Tragically, she was one among many of the Cathay stars who had a rocky life and ended it via suicide. She died in Los Angeles in 1967 at the age of twenty-seven. Similar sad stories seem to plague far too many of the Cathay women.

Despite that somber footnote, Mambo Girl is an energetic, fun, pluck-at-your-heartstrings musical that will win you over solely with the charm of its leading lady. It’s a refreshing change of pace for people who know Hong Kong cinema primarily through kungfu films and more modern actioners. Mambo Girl takes the conventions of the Hollywood musical and integrates them seamlessly with Hong Kong sensibilities. Ultimately, you can’t feel sad watching the movie, especially when the time rolls around for the big musical mambo finale. Relatively low-key in comparison to other musicals, even other black and white ones, it’s a quality, retro romp that just might have you reaching for the nearest tennis racket.