Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)


Background: After The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms became a sleeper hit, Ray Harryhausen proposed an original idea to producer Jack Dietz for a follow-up. His story treatment, entitled The Elementalsinvolved a race of winged creatures invading Paris and roosting in the Eiffel Tower. (You can see a preliminary test, “starring” Harryhausen himself, on youtube.) While Deitz supported the project, he insisted that it be made in then-popular 3D and had Harryhausen experiment with 3D stop-motion animation. After a few tests, the two men mutually agreed that such a process would be far too expensive and time-consuming; The Elementals never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer had seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and recognized major commercial potential in the burgeoning giant monster genre. Inspired by Harryhausen’s dinosaur, Schneer hired the man himself to work on another high-concept creature feature, this one featuring a gigantic octopus on a rampage through the Bay Area. Eager to work on another feature film, the animator began pre-production, crafting the creature models and observing octopi at local aquariums to get ideas. Famously, budget constraints meant that the octopus could only have six tentacles; the ever-thrifty Harryhausen would later transform them into dinosaur tails. Working from a script by Them! (1954) writer George Worthing Yates, director Robert Gordon finished principal photography in two to three weeks (Harryhausen’s visual effects work took upwards of seven months) by rarely using more than one take.

By the time It Came From Beneath the Sea premiered in July 1955, Harryhausen-esque creatures had become a regular part of the moviegoing experience: 1954 saw the release of Them! and Godzilla and Harryhausen’s second film came out in the same year as Tarantula and Godzilla Raids Again. (Although it might seem a bit campy today, giant monsters provided a perfect, if literal, metaphor for Cold War-era fears.) Released on a double bill with the incredibly-titled Creature With the Atom BrainIt Came From Beneath the Sea grossed more than ten times its $150,000 budget. Just as importantly, the film marked the beginning of a partnership, as Schneer would produce eleven more films for Harryhausen.


Plot Introduction: While on its maiden voyage, a state-of-the-art nuclear sub collides with an unknown, highly radioactive object in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The vessel’s captain, Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), investigates the incident, recruiting marine biologists John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) to analyze a piece of organic tissue found on the submarine’s exterior. The marine biologists discover that undersea nuclear testing has completely disrupted the Pacific ecosystem, causing giant octopi to leave their deep-sea trenches in search of food. After a superfluous romantic subplot between Joyce and Mathews, the Octopus finally arrives at San Franciso, climbing up the Golden Gate Bridge and attacking the Embarcadero. After soldiers push the creature back into the water with flamethrowers, Mathews and Carter destroy it with a radioactive torpedo.

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My Thoughts: In his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen makes it clear that he thinks of his stop-motions creations as creatures, not monsters, and that he tried to give every one of them a sense of pathos. Of all the diverse creatures in his vast bestiary, the giant octopus comes closest to a monster: as a one-dimensional killing machine, it’s certainly not a tragic figure like the Rhedosaurus. I can think of two major reasons why this is. First, he didn’t come up with the idea, didn’t design the character (besides cutting off two of the tentacles), and didn’t have a fantastic short story by his lifelong friend to base its personality on. The personal touch that makes so many of Harryhausen’s creations memorable just isn’t there.

Second, octopi are so far removed from human beings that they become truly hard to relate to. Harryhausen’s best work always involves bringing creatures that have a major presence in our imagination – creatures from myth, the distant past, or other worlds – to life. (What kid goes through a phase where they’re fascinated with mollusks?) With one or two exceptions, real-life animals were never his forte. In It Came From Beneath the Sea, the special effects shot invariably focus on the tentacles, which prevent us from making eye contact and add one more barrier to any kind of emotional investment. I know that the creature is so wantonly destructive because it’s a metaphor for the bomb, but the bomb is impossible to sympathize with.

The unsympathetic octopus, however, is fascinating to look at. Apart from an underwhelming finale, where it truly does look like a rubber model holding onto a toy submarine, Harryhausen does very good work on a shoestring budget. The clear highlights are the creature’s attacks on the Oakland ferry and the Embarcadero. Harryhausen, who animated the tentacles as if they had eyes, has them crush humans, smash through windows, tear down buildings, and generally terrorize the Bay Area. Building on his previous experience, he mattes everything together very well: it’s very hard to tell where the Golden Gate Bridge ends and the miniature model begins.

Unfortunately, the stop-motion effects don’t appear as often as they should. The first hour of this 79-minute film has about two minutes of octopus screentime, which is simply unacceptable for a Harryhausen flick. While Harryhausen built his career around using very limited resources in creative ways, this might be the one time where the low budget got the better of him. As you probably surmised from the plot summary, this is almost a beat-for-beat remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms with a few of the details changed. The combination of budget constraints and slavish devotion to its predecessor means that It Came From Beneath the Sea does pretty much everything worse than Harryhausen’s first film. Besides the creature, which is a clear downgrade, the human story has also taken a turn for the worse: as perfunctory as the characters were in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, having a proto-Fox Mulder as the protagonist is a decent hook.

The hero of It Came From Beneath the Sea, however, is a completely generic naval officer. Kenneth Tobey (who had a supporting role in Harryhausen’s debut) plays it woodenly and adds nothing to a badly underwritten character. However, I can’t really blame him or the other cast members because of the rushed production and the directors refusal to shoot multiple takes unless someone flubbed their line. Good performances simply don’t come from those conditions. Because of this, the romance that takes up much of the film’s screen time is completely uninteresting.

The only live-action scene that works is the opening where the submarine crew first encounters the octopus. Shot in an actual submarine, the sequence’s claustrophobic visuals, editing, and sound design come together to create a tense atmosphere. While watching the rest of the movie, I could help but play armchair writer and think about how this would be a much better direction for the film: instead of having Harryhausen copy his previous work, he should have worked on making the underwater scenes convincing and It Came from Beneath the Sea should have been about subs hunting giant octopi in the Pacific.

I’ve been harsh on this film, but that’s because I have a great love for Ray Harryhausen and things beyond his control really hampered him here. Fortunately, his celebrated career was only getting started.


The Stranger (1946)

stranger_xlgBackground: Despite their privileged place in the film canon, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) underperformed at the box office, causing a rift between Orson Welles and RKO. The studio put the multi-talented enfant terrible on a tight leash for his third film as director: Welles, who beat out John Huston for the job, was barred from making changes to the script and had to pay for any cost overruns out of his own pocket. Although Welles feuded with producer Sam Spiegel during the production, he did – for the first and probably last time in his career – manage to complete the project on time and on budget. The Stranger, which received an Oscar nomination in the now-defunct category of “Best Story” (i.e. treatment), did better business than Welles’ previous two efforts and became his first financial success as director. His struggles with the system, however, were just beginning.


Plot Introduction: Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is a Nazi hunter, a UN special agent tasked with bringing Germany’s most notorious fugitives to justice. His current target is the infamous war criminal Franz Kindler, the man who orchestrated the Holocaust and the Third Reich’s scorched earth tactics. Tracking the Nazi to Harper, Connecticut, Wilson poses as an antiques dealer and gathers intelligence on the inhabitants of the seemingly idyllic small town. He realizes the Kindler has taken on the identity of Charles Rankin (Welles), a respected teacher at a prestigious local prep school. Wilson tries to convince Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary (Loretta Young) of her husband’s true identity, but she refuses to believe that she could have married a Nazi. After the teacher’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, Mary becomes suspicious, causing the war criminal to plot her death. Kindler lays a trap at a local church bell tower but Wilson intervenes and finally ends Kindler’s reign of terror.

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My Thoughts: As if there was any doubt, Russel Metty’s cinematography and Welles’ mastery of atmosphere show that the film noir was in full bloom by 1946: The Stranger teems with shadows. Metty – who would later win an Oscar for his work on Spartacus (1960) – shoots seemingly normal locations from just the right angle and with just the right low-key lighting to make them seem desolate and alien. The Stranger finds its horror in deserted high school gyms, family dinners, and small-town churches.

There’s something very Hitchcockian about the whole endeavor and I was immediately reminded of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), another film that creates suspense and black humor by placing a psychopath in Norman Rockwell small-town America. Like that Hitchcock flick, The Stranger has a lot of fun contrasting undeniable evil with the kind of quirkiness that one would expect from The Andy Griffith Show. In a comedic scene, Robinson’s g-man jokes that a local general store owner (a character right out of a sitcom) is a high roller because he gambles 25 cents on a game of checkers; the Nazi hunter is clearly amused by the banality that now surrounds him. Even Kindler himself has a mundane, unexplained obsession with clocks.

The basic premise – a genocidal Nazi disguised as a pillar  of the community – remains a very solid idea for a film, a concept perfect for the mid-century noir style. While probably not an auteur vision like Citizen Kane, The Stranger proves that Welles could do what a director was asked to do in the studio era: oversee the translation of a good script into a good movie.

He also makes a major contribution as an actor. Welles plays Kindler/Rankin with a great deal of intensity, particularly in a scene where the German betrays his identity during a heated discussion of the Nazi mindset. He’s simply fantastic here, throwing out references to Germanic paganism, Wagner, and the Teutonic Knights in an extended, scenery-chewing monologue. Fortunately, this is as over-the top as Welles gets in The Stranger; he would reach much greater levels of hamminess later in his career. I’m also thankful that Welles opted for his normal accent instead of an affected German one, as I remember his Irish brogue in The Lady From Shanghai (1947) being one of that film’s weaker aspects.

Edward G. Robinson does a decent job as the protagonist, playing him in the same no-nonsense way as many of his other roles. While I totally buy him as a tough g-man, I didn’t get as much from his performance as I did from films like Scarlet Street (1945) or Key Largo (1948), or Soylent Green (1973) for that matter. The problem, I think, is the script: while we know that Wilson is a competent man of action, that’s about the only thing we know about him. We never even learn his first name. Because the script gives Robinson so little to work with, the character seems a bit generic, and the story would be stronger if they developed him more, gave him some relationship or quirk or personality trait that makes him seem like a real person. Mr. Wilson is really no match for a genocidal Nazi.

Kindler/Rankin’s wife Mary doesn’t fare much better. Although I know that she was a respected, Oscar-winning actress in her day, Loretta Young’s performance falls kind of flat for me. Of all the characters in The Stranger, she has the most drastic arc; it can’t be easy to learn that your spouse was behind the Holocaust. The script, unfortunately, tells us as much about her as it does about Edward G. Robinson’s character. The film’s minor characters provide a bit of local color and not much else.

Without a doubt the screenplay (allegedly featuring uncredited contributions by Welles and Huston) is light on character development. However, that is to be expected from a 95-minute thriller and, besides, The Stranger focuses on other things. While it has its flaws, the film also has four or five truly awesome, truly memorable scenes; I’ve already mentioned Welles’ Nazi monologue at the dinner table. Kindler’s meeting with a former comrade is another highlight. As the two men walk through the depths of a New England forest, Meinike (Konstanstin Shayne) tells Kindler about his religious conversion and asks him to confess his many, many sins. The Nazi then kills Meinike and buries his body in the woods, his coverrup of the murder eventually leading to his downfall.

Like all good thrillers, The Stranger ends with a suspenseful finale. Wilson and Kindler’s fatal confrontation atop the church bell tower is simply awesome, a set-piece worthy of Hitchcock. Welles and company taking one of the most enduring cinematic tropes – Roger Ebert calls it “the fallacy of the climbing villain” – and run with it, crafting something truly memorable. So much of this scene’s effectiveness comes from its sound design, from the clicking and whirring of the clock gears that ratchet up the tension. The editing (by Ernest J. Nims) is fantastic as well, providing an almost textbook example of how to cut a suspense scene. Welles’ over-the-top death – Franz Kindler is impaled on the sword of a statue and falls from the tower – is the perfect ending.

In a broader historical context, The Stranger is one of several 1946 thrillers about Nazi hunters; we’ve already scene a comedic Marx Brothers take on this genre. It’s not hard to see why, as the discovery of Axis Powers atrocities must have been on everyone’s mind in the postwar period. Of all these films, this one is probably the most thought-provoking because of its Nazi hiding in plain sight: members of the Third Reich really did live double lives as upstanding citizens.


Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

beast poster

Background: In my life, I’ve had the honor of meeting two late science fiction legends, special effects master Ray Harryhausen and visionary writer Ray Bradbury. The two Rays shared a lifelong friendship, bonding in their late teens over a mutual love of dinosaurs. (When Harryhausen finally received a lifetime achievement Oscar, Bradbury presented it to him.) On a DVD special feature, the two old men sit down and reminisce about the old days when they drove around L.A. to see screenings of King Kong (1933) and spent hours discussing space travel. Professionally, however, their paths only crossed once, on this 1953 monster movie.

After a decade spent making short films and apprenticing under King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen accepted an offer to work on a low-budget feature film. (Producers Hal Chester and Jack Dietz were so tight with money that Harryhausen had to pay for many expenses out of pocket.) Although he needed the job, he voiced his problems with the script treatment – then called “Monster From Under the Sea” – and suggested improvements. Because the production was so small, Harryhausen essentially created the visual effects by himself, designing a fictitious dinosaur called a “Rhedosaur” and developing ways to matte it into live-action footage.

Meanwhile, Ray Bradbury had a prehistoric experience of his own. While walking along Venice Beach, the author saw the ruins of an abandoned roller coaster and imaged them to be the skeleton of a dinosaur that died of loneliness. Inspired, he wrote a short story about a fog horn that awakens a dinosaur from a millennia-long slumber at the bottom of the sea; the dinosaur believes the sound to be another of its kind. The creature then discovers that the lighthouse is not a member of its species and destroys it. Bradbury sold the story to the Saturday Evening Post.

After its publication, Chester and Dietz bought the rights to Bradbury’s story, using its title – the short story is now known as “The Foghorn” to avoid confusion – and adapting it into one of the film’s best scenes. Helmed by veteran French art director Eugène Lourié, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms grossed five million dollars on a $210,000 budget and established Harryhausen’s creatures as a box office draw.

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Plot Introduction: A top-secret nuclear test in the Arctic Circle frees a dinosaur from the icy prison that held it for millions of years. When nuclear physicist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) encounters the creature, it buries his friend in an avalanche and seemingly disappears; authorities dismiss Nesbitt’s dinosaur sighting as a “traumatic hallucination” and place him in a psychiatric institution. Anxious to prove his sanity, Nesbitt enlists paleontologists Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) to help him investigate reports of sea monsters. He is eventually vindicated when the Rhedosaurus lands on Manhattan Island and rampages through the city. Because it has radioactive blood, the military cannot kill the creature with normal weapons: any break in its scaly skin would cause an outbreak of disease. The humans finally stop the Rhedosaurus’s reign of terror at Coney Island, where a sniper shoots it with a radioactive isotope that causes its body to break down.

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My Thoughts: To be perfectly honest, the beginning of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms feels like something you’d see on Mystery Science Theater 3000: stentorian ’50s narration over military stock footage, questionable science, cheesy rear projection. Mike and the robots would have had a lot of fun mocking a secret project called “Operation Experiment.” Although the film gets much better, it’s important to remember that Ray Harryhausen spent the early part of his career in the same b-movie world as Roger Corman. (They really should have collaborated – I’m sure Vincent Price would have loved to play opposite a Harryhausen creature.)

The film improves immediately after the bomb explodes, as our protagonist goes out onto the ice to investigate a (beastly) radar anomaly. The production never went close to the Arctic, but the combination of sets and actually well-composited backdrops works much better than it has any right to. I was reminded of Han Solo searching Hoth’s frozen wastes for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. (Lucas is a huge Harryhausen fan, after all.) When the beast first appears in the middle of a blizzard, it’s a legitimately atmospheric sequence.

I’ve gotten into The X-Files lately, and this film’s main character is a lot like a ’50s version of Fox Mulder: a traumatic, paranormal experience causes him to become obsessed with cryptids and travel hundreds of miles to hear sailors tell tales of sea serpents. Authority figures mock Nesbitt – who compares himself to Galileo – with jokes about leprechauns and the Loch Ness monster. In one very X-Files scene, Nesbitt tries to identify the creature he saw by looking at many, many sketches of prehistoric animals. Although his accent slips in and out, Swiss actor (the script infers that people don’t believe him because he is foreign) Paul Christian gives a decent performance, as does Paula Raymond as the obligatory love interest. The most entertaining cast member, however, is Cecil Kellaway, an actor who I’ve previously discussed in my review of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Kellaway’s paleontology professor is so cartoonish that Nesbitt meets him next to a reassembled Brontosaurus skeleton.

Despite budget constraints, first-time director Lourié does a solid job. (Maybe he learned a thing or two about directing from his collaborations with Jean Renoir.) In his autobiography, Harryhausen recalls that he and Lourié worked very well together; he also praises the Frenchman for designing sets that look like the cost much more than they actually did. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms began a second career for Lourié, as he spent the next decade directing three more monster movies.

Of course, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus far outshadows any of its human costars; It’s remarkable that one man using very simple technology could have accomplished all of it. While the rear projection is obvious in a few shots, he mostly finds a way to seamlessly integrate his creature into the live-action footage. Even at this early stage in his career, Harryhausen’s work on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms contains some of his best setpieces: the Rhedosaurus demolishes Bradbury’s lighthouse, rocks a ship back and forth on the water, crashes through a New York building, swipes at power lines, and dies in agony surrounded by a burning roller coaster. (In his book, Harryhausen mentions his belief that “every creature should die on or near a landmark.”)

Drawing from his friend’s short story, Harryhausen gives the dinosaur a real characterization. As the world’s biggest King Kong fan, he would return again and again to the idea of his creatures as victims of a world that does not understand them. The Rhedosaurus, after all, is only trying to return to its own stomping grounds, which happen to have been paved over and covered with skyscrapers. “The Foghorn” is all about the dinosaur’s loneliness, and Harryhausen breathes such life so much life into it that the viewer truly gets emotionally involved. Besides being a spectacular showcase of visual effects, the creature’s death at Coney Island is a truly dramatic (and even tragic) moment. In the past, I’ve praised filmmakers for getting good performances out of actors; I’m covering Harryhausen because he gets good performances out of rubber models.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is both one of the most entertaining 1950’s b-movies and one of the most influential. Science fiction always taps into its zeitgeist’s fears; Harryhausen’s atomically-revived dinosaur resonated with a post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki world, inspiring Godzilla (1954) and a whole subgenre of giant monster movies. Eight years later, director Eugène Lourié helmed Gorgo (1961), a film that can be best described as “Godzilla in London.” (if you enjoy watching guys in rubber suits destroy model cities, Gorgo is one of the better films in that genre.) From the start, Harryhausen’s work had an impact on other filmmakers, as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is a pioneering summer blockbuster.

Anna and the King of Siam (1946)


Background: The story of Anna Leonowens – a 19th century Anglo-Indian governess who taught the many children of King Monkgut of modern-day Thailand – has been the subject of four feature films, including both live-action and animated version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I. The very first adaptation, however, was this dramatic film, based on the Margaret Landon novel of the same name which was in turn based on Leonowens’ memoir. Legendary Fox mogul Daryl F. Zanuck invested a tremendous amount of time and money into the project, an effort that paid off at the 19th Academy Awards: Anna and the King of Siam won Oscars for its art direction and cinematography as well as three other nominations.

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Plot Introduction: In 1862, Anna Owens (Irene Dunne; the name was changed for the film) arrives in the Kingdom of Siam and is shocked by what she finds there: King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) has fathered almost seventy children with harem women and demands that his subjects grovel at his feet. Anna is initially refused an audience with the king by the royal minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb) due to her ignorance of Siamese etiquette. The two finally meet and begin a somewhat contentious working relationship as the governess educates the king, his wives, and his many children about the western world. Anna gains King Mongkut’s trust and becomes an important personal adviser, helping him impress foreign dignitaries and establish western consulates. After the king dies, his successor continues Anna’s legacy by implementing many of the social reforms that she had campaigned for.

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My Thoughts: I know that 1946 was a different time. I know that it’s unfair to judge the past by the moral standards of today. I know that political correctness can often be a dangerous thing. This is 2014, however, and there is something I can’t overlook: watching white actors darken their skin, squint their eyes, and speak in broken English to play Asians is weird and uncomfortable.

As an art history student, I’m familiar with the genre of 19th century painting known as Orientalism, which – long story short – illustrates romantic western notions of the “mysterious east.” This concept was certainly present in Hollywood: just think of Doug Fairbanks swashbuckling his way through an Arabian Nights-style Middle East in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), or that film’s 1940 remake, or the “exotic” India of Black Narcissus (1947), or the fanciful architecture of Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters. One can certainly see why this concept (and this film) would be appealing in postwar America, as the country was in the process of occupying and westernizing another Asian empire. From the prologue, which describes Thailand/Siam as “that strange and still half-barbaric country,” it’s clear that Anna and the King of Siam is a second-hand view of Asia.

A perfect example of this exoticism is that the three main Thai characters are played in different but equally stereotypical ways. This was Rex Harrison’s first American film and he barely attempts to hide his native accent; he plays the King like a Monty Python version of a fey, upper class British man, giving campy readings of lines like “How can king be wrong and woman be right?” Veteran actor Lee J. Cobb darkens his face and plays Kralahome with the stoic delivery and broken sentences of a Hollywood Native American. Finally, Gale Sondergaard’s Oscar-nominated (!) turn as courtesan Lady Thiang comes closest to modern stereotypes of Asian speaking patterns. (I was pleasantly surprised that no one pronounces their l’s as r’s or vice versa.)

Dated racial attitudes aside, Anna and the King of Siam is a well-furnished if slow and stagey period piece. (I can’t see what AMPAS saw in Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson’s screenplay.) I’m not familiar with the work of director John Cromwell (who, incidentally, is the father of character actor James Cromwell), but he doesn’t do much to help the film’s stilted atmosphere. Because the vast majority of actors and actresses in this film are badly miscast, suspension of belief never happens: the viewer is totally aware that they are watching made-up actors in costumes.

In some ways, that’s the point. Just like today’s CGI spectacles, the Hollywood costume drama is all about production values. Anna and the King of Siam succeeds on that particular front, as the Oscar-winning art direction (by Lyle Wheeler, Thomas Little, William S. Darling and Frank E. Hughes, who have fifty-eight nominations between them) is lavish, 19th century Thailand by way of King Kong’s Skull Island; the film’s sets took up ten acres of the Fox lot. Had they given out awards for costuming in 1946, this film would have won an additional Oscar. Arthur C. Miller received an Oscar for filming all of this, but I can’t say I was greatly impressed with his cinematography. Miller’s work on How Green was My Valley (1941) is a much better indication of his talent. Finally, Bernard Herrman – arguably Hollywood’s greatest composer – contributes a suitably brassy and “exotic” score that doesn’t rank among his best.

At the center of all this property and manpower is, of course, Irene Dunne as Anna Owens. If you’re like me (or like most viewers, I would imagine), you probably know Dunne as Cary Grant’s leading lady in a couple of excellent romantic comedies. Unfortunately, this Oscar bait-ish role isn’t her best performance, as much of her charm is lost under a British accent and a big Victorian-style dress. Part of the problem is that the character itself just isn’t very interesting: Anna Owens (I can’t comment on how faithful this is to the book or to actual history) is mostly one-note, a dutiful exporter of western though to the east. There are a few comedic sparks, however, including a wonderfully awkward scene where Dunne’s child asks her what a harem is.

Anna and the King of Siam just isn’t for me: it’s a slow-moving costume drama with mostly uninteresting (and, to many people, offensive) characters. I can’t imagine that modern viewers would find it interesting in a non-sociological way, although you might find it helpful if you ever find yourself writing a paper about portrayals of Asians in American media.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

dressed to killBackground: After playing Sherlock Holmes for fourteen films, Basil Rathbone was utterly typecast as the great detective. The frustrated actor decided to move on with his career, making Dressed to Kill the final film in the series; it was also the last bow (pun intended) for Nigel Bruce as Watson and for director Roy William Neill who died in December 1946. The script is not based on a Conan Doyle story but shares vague plot similarities with “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Six Napoleons.”


Plot Introduction: An old friend of Dr. Watson (Bruce) arrives at 221B Baker Street and presents Holmes (Rathbone) and Watson with a mystery: a burglar broke into his home and stole a cheap music box, leaving the rest of his possessions untouched. Holmes and Watson investigate, discovering that the music box is one of three identical pieces crafted by an incarcerated thief. Holmes deduces that the music boxes are coded clues to the whereabouts of some hidden counterfeiting equipment. The detective and doctor race to finding the remaining music boxes, the efforts often thwarted by the scheming Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morrison) and her goons. After acquiring the last of the boxes, Holmes cracks the code and spring a trap for Courtney.


My Thoughts: A franchise surviving to its fourteenth installment with the same lead is such a rare occurrence that I racked my brain trying to find a comparison. Take another British icon, James Bond. His fourteenth film, A View to a Kill (1985), was the last of the Roger Moore era before a darker, grittier Timothy Dalton reboot. I know it’s not directly comparable because the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes became a series of twice a year b-movies, but still: imagine Craig’s Bond or Downey’s Iron Man making it to the double digits in appearances.

As with any long-running franchise (I’m thinking particularly of Roger Moore as James Bond), the final Rathbone and Bruce Sherlock Holmes film enters camp territory: would any other version of Doctor Watson cheer up a kid by quacking like a duck? Bruce’s Watson – who uses the term “old boy” so often you could make a drinking game out of it – is now a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s good doctor, played for a fool by the villainess. There’s a fun, meta running in-joke where this Watson writes fictionalized versions of Holmes’ cases for The Strand magazine.

A character referenced multiple times throughout the film is Irene Adler, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Hilda Courtney. (I don’t know why they didn’t just use the same character name.) The idea is a good one: one could craft a great script around Sherlock Holmes facing off with his female equivalent, each setting complicated traps for the other. However, Dressed to Kill is just too short (72 minutes) to develop this properly. We learn absolutely nothing about Courtney’s past, her motivation, etc. This, unfortunately, is an example of economical b-movie storytelling completely at odds with the story itself.

Holmes is a genius, of course, but Dressed to Kill takes his mental abilities to ridiculous extremes. Not only is he the world’s greatest detective, but this version is also a musical genius, able to perfectly memorize and reproduce any song he has heard once. I find this farfetched, even for Sherlock.

The last Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes isn’t a bad film, but franchise fatigue has definitely set in.