Friday, May 23, 2014

TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL (1935)

Considering it will have taken 22 years by the time the New York's Second Avenue Subway is completed, the idea of a tunnel running from England to the USA seems something of a fool's commute. The idea has actually been discussed from time to time, but Gaumont British Pictures got there in 1935 with the art-deco sci-fi epic Transatlantic Tunnel. If the Second Avenue Subway contains as much melodrama and intrigue as this movie -- marital problems,  blindness, double-crossing, murder, a disease called "tunnel sickness," underwater volcanoes -- those poor sandhogs are in for a hell of a time.




How many people were decapitated opening
the trunk?
It's a credit to the British filmmakers' honesty that the character behind the tunnel, Richard McAllen, is an American. Apparently, Brits weren't forward-thinking (or foolhardy) enough to come up with such an insane idea. As with all sci-fi movies, Transatlantic Tunnel takes place in the future -- that is, the 1940s and beyond. This allows the filmmakers to show off all kind of jim-dandy inventions, including television, wall-installed Skypes called televisors, trains and cars shaped like torpedoes, and private planes that resemble badly-made scones. Doesn't life today seem dull by comparison?

"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm on the
phone, not hiding behind the wall!"
None of these material things, of course, prevents human drama from taking its toll. Gossip rags hint that McAllen is having an affair with British debutante Varlia Lloyd. His wife Ruth, having gone blind working in the tunnel as a nurse, walks out on him, taking their son with her. McAllen's friendship with his associate, Robbie, is stretched almost to the breaking point. A couple of the moneymen financing the project plan to dump their shares, and, in the resulting panic, buy up the rest to control the whole thing. (One of the financiers is murdered when he backs out of the deal.) McAllen's son Geoffrey, now a young man, is killed in a tunnel explosion, joining hundreds of other fatalities that have already incurred. All this to prevent climate change from airplanes zooming over the Atlantic? No thanks, bub, I'll take my chances with the melting icebergs.

You'd think by then, they'd have invented
an iPhone instead of having to use
pencil and paper.
You may be wondering by now if the tunnel is even worth this heartache. The world leaders, deciding if they're willing to back the project, aren't so sure. When one declares the tunnel will provide only "useless employment," another says, "That's the kind they prefer." (Hey, how did Harry Reid get in here?)  But the overriding reason for the tunnel's construction, as repeated over and over, is to bring about world peace. But nobody ever explains how! They should have paid attention to the French representative, an arms manufacturer, who admits, "When your tunnel is built, all of the other nations will come to me for guns to blow it up." Merci, mon ami. (His line echoes a similar sentiment during an equally-cynical scene in The Man Who Reclaimed his Head.)


The wonderful world of alanite steel.
You may be wondering, too, just how a transatlantic tunnel can possibly be built. Well, I guess you weren't counting on radium drills and alanite steel. That's the cool thing about science-fiction -- if something is impossible, just make up stuff to defy it. Another side-effect of living in the future, by Transatlantic Tunnel's sights, is that apparently nobody ages over time except McAllen's son -- and he's killed on his first day on the job. That'll teach you non-aging little whippersnapper!


Richard Dix and Leslie Banks discover just
how hot it can get drilling through a
volcano.
Richard Dix, nearing the end of his leading-man days, was probably hired to play Richard McAllen because he looks and sounded to Brits like the typical American -- part genius, part caveman, not quite handsome but someone who can fill out a tux.  British actor Leslie Banks -- perhaps best known for the original UK version of The Man who Knew Too Much -- plays McAllen's friend Robbie with his usual flair, even as he spends most of the time with his
Even this UK promotional card
for the movie kept Leslie Banks
in right profile.
right profile to the camera, the left side having been paralyzed during service in World War I. (I bet you thought I was going to make a crack about him being a two-faced actor. Never.) George Arliss and Walter Huston -- "classy" actors from the UK and US -- make guest appearances as the British Prime Minister and American President respectively. Arliss fans will be happy to know that he continues his time-honored technique of dramatically pointing his finger in the air while giving speeches. Why doesn't anybody do this anymore?



My wife would love this staring down at her
in the living room every day.
A fascinating film, Transatlantic Tunnel wouldn't appeal today to the average movie fan, if only because its soft, faded image and occasionally muffled audio cry out for a restoration that is unlikely to come. Yet some of its "farfetched" ideas have already come true. McAllen, we learn early on, has already built the English Channel tunnel, although his other tunnel, linking the Bahamas to Miami, remains unrealized, to the grateful thanks of the anti-immigration crowd.

 Transatlantic Tunnel is actually a remake of the German movie Der Tunnel, and one from France entitled -- you'll never guess -- Le Tunnel. In England, it seems to have premiered as -- hold on to your hats -- The Tunnel before taking on its final title in America. The release in Spain, as El Tunel Transatlantico, also provided its most bizarre poster, one I would use my kid's college savings to purchase. I'd say it's worth its weight in alanite steel. 

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Richard Dix didn't always play such noble characters, as he proved quite well in The Ghost Ship.

Can't get enough of profiteering world leaders dragging their nations into war?  Read about The Man Who Reclaimed His Head.

Monday, May 19, 2014

GREEN LIGHT (1937)

One of the more irritating bromides of our time is "Everything happens for a reason." This is spoken by people who would otherwise find it impossible to accept the unfair, awful, horrendous events that happen to them or the world in general; a deliberate denial of reality in order to prevent a swan dive off the nearest bridge. It's also the basis of Green Light, Errol Flynn's third starring American movie, and the first that didn't involve buckles being swashed.

Flynn plays Dr. Newell Paige -- only in movies (and the forgotten books they're based upon) do sawbones have names like Newell Paige -- who willingly takes the fall for Dr. Endicott, an older surgeon, when a patient dies during an operation. So you know this is definitely a work of fiction, right? 

"I love you too, baby. Let's just
keep your mother out of it."
The unfortunate patient's daughter, Phyllis Dexter, falls in love with Paige until he she finds out that he's supposedly the guy who killed her mother. Some offspring might thank such a guy, but apparently she grew up in a normal family. Deciding that it's time to find a more noble calling, Paige joins a former colleague in Montana in trying to find a cure for spotted fever, where he puts his life at risk by allowing himself to be bitten by a poisonous tic in order to test a new serum. As if just moving to Montana isn't sacrifice enough.




While Flynn pays close attention, director Borzage
demonstrates how to ask a dying patient for her
group number.
All this would be pure soap opera -- is pure soap opera -- but director Frank Borzage, a master at enveloping such stories with a mystical glow, keeps the suds percolating at a low simmer. He apparently ran through a several pounds of gauze for the camera lens, for nearly every shot appears to be taking place in a romantic dream. Flynn's first appearance in particular must have set women's hearts swooning, seeing that he is unearthly handsome and ungodly charismatic. (My
wife was immune to his charms in Green Light, sensing the predator underneath.  I'm better at hiding that kind of thing.)



He's got a 104-fever -- let the guy rest, for
Chrissakes!
Borzage's touch never falters, even as Dr. Paige comes down with spotted fever. While he lies in bed for a week, his fever rising and respiratory condition worsening, Paige's face glistens with near-holy perspiration. His hair remains in place, complete with a boyish curl on his forehead. Not a hint of stubble grows on his face.  Damn, why don't I look this good when I've a 104-degree fever? In no time, Phyllis and seemingly half Paige's former hospital staff are at his bedside, leaving one to wonder who's running the show back home. 

It won't surprise you to learn that everything works out in the end. Phyllis learns through Endicott himself that Paige had nothing to do with her mother's death. When Paige recovers, he and Phyllis get the hell out of Dodge, and, instead hopping into the nearest sack, go to church. You gotta be kidding me.

Dean Harcourt consoles Phyllis over her
mother and that hideous hat.
In keeping with Green Light's spirituality, Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Dean Harcourt, the story's God stand-in, a theologian whose weekly radio broadcasts provided great comfort for Phyllis' mother. He also winds up being the go-to guy for all the main characters, his gentle philosophical advice boiling down to, "Don't ask, don't tell. Now go home and think about it." He's also what we used to call back in the day a cripple, and, like all cripples in old movies, is more psychologically-whole than anyone else. Even if he is, like I said, a cripple.

And she looks better in profile than either
of them.



By my wife's contention, the best performance was given by Green Light's other God stand-in, Sylvia, Dr. Paige's Irish Setter. Showing more emotion than Paige's love interest, Phyllis (played by Anita Louise), Sylvia takes direction better, and possesses nicer hair to boot. She's also the only one in the movie who gives Flynn a run for his money in the looks department. By the end of the movie, you'll believe a dog can look soulful on cue without looking at the camera.


I collect movie posters from the U.S., but I'd make
an exception for this bizarre French one-sheet.
Being something of a sucker for both Errol Flynn and old movies with a spiritual bent, I admit to enjoying Green Light more than most audiences today probably would. As with Keeper of the Bees, made two years earlier, there's a certain delicacy afoot that doesn't fly in today's cynical times. It's also a chance to see the 27 year-old Flynn in one of his rare, low-key, modern-dress roles, proving that there was more to him just pirates, swordsmen and cowboys. He may be fully aware of his seductive qualities, but that makes guys like me enjoy him all the more. Flynn is everything we'd like to think we are, only we know we never will be. When he's almost dying in Green Light, he not only looks like a saint, he consoles everyone around him with a debonair accent. I can't even catch a cold without collapsing on the couch and moaning like an asthmatic ghost. I don't think my wife would mind if I had a little of Flynn's charm.

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To read about the equally-unusual Keeper of the Bees, go here.

Green Light's original preview. It's an "x-ray of unquestioning love." Today, it would be an MRI: