Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE CLAIRVOYANT (1934)

The Clairvoyant, a classy British production, takes no moral or scientific stand on the concept of telepathy. Therefore, believers and non-believers alike will find it alternately consoling and irritating. All in all, an excellent idea.

A charlatan named Maximus and his wife Rene are touring the British music halls with a phony mind-reading act. One night, a sympathetic fan named Christine channels her own real telepathic gift through Maximus, turning his life upside down. 

While his salary and acclaim rise dramatically, his personal life falls apart, as he spends more time with Christine; neither can work without the other. And in their wake lies a stream of tragedy. By the end, Maximus is on trial for the deaths of hundreds of workers in a subway tunnel disaster. They really should have seen that coming, right?

The unanswered mystery looming over the The Clairvoyant's climax is if Maximus predicted these events, or if Christine caused them to happen by using Maximus as her telepathic receiver, for her own nefarious reasons. (Did I mention that her father is the publisher of the biggest newspaper in London?) Max, just hang up on her!

"Hello all you people in radio land. I hope you haven't
made any long-term plans."
The Clairvoyant's poster promises "The Eternal Triangle," but it's more like two-and-a-half sides. While Christine is clearly enamored of Maximus, even behaving like his wife in front of Rene, the love is never returned. He might be spending time with her, but he really is working late -- honest!



The eyes have it.
Director Maurice Elvey heightens the drama with quick edits and extreme close-ups, especially of the always-wonderful Claude Rains (as Maximus). Somehow, in the pre-CGI age, Rains' eyes positively glow when he goes into a trance. Technicians had to work at these things back then. 

Modern audiences would probably find much of The Clairvoyant a bit unsubtle. I think that's the point. This movie is about a phony who discovers that he's the real deal -- and has the body count to prove it. How subtle would their reaction be? Even if their eyes didn't glow.

For its stateside release, The Clairvoyant was re-titled The Evil Mind, probably because the studio didn't think Americans knew what "clairvoyant" meant. But it can also refer to Christine. Almost all the prognostications she sends to him wind up with people killed. And I thought use to have annoying work colleagues.
Cheer up, Rene! You finally found a guy who thinks
the same way you do.

But perhaps that's why Jane Baxter plays Christine with an almost constant look of melancholy, even when she's allegedly happy, as if she can't help but destroy not only Maximus' life, but that of complete strangers. Like I always say: Dames, hunh?



If my wife wore a coat three sizes too big,
 
I'd look pretty stunned, too.
While the making of The Clairvoyant was a brief return home for Claude Rains -- it was only his fourth movie after his star-making turn in The Invisible Man -- it's American actress Fay Wray who plays his wife Rene with a proper British accent. Either Wray was box office insurance for the US release, or she came cheaper than British leading ladies.

These days, when far-fetched "based on a true story" movies are accepted without question, it's refreshing that the entirely fictional The Clairvoyant offers no answers or explanations; the viewer is left to figure out the hows and whys. Like why co-star Athole Stewart was given that first name. I mean, anybody could have predicted that he would grow up with kids yelling, "Hey, Athole!"

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Friday, August 5, 2016

BLACK MOON (1934)



The usual voodoo tale back in the day featured a blonde, Nordic heroine falling under the spell of Creole-speaking blacks in the tropics. 

Columbia's 1934 shocker Black Moon goes a different route, with its leading female character, Juanita Perez, actually yearning to return to the island of San Christopher, where she grew up. Having never gotten the jungle out of her system, we first see her at home hypnotically playing a jungle drum for her enraptured seven year-old daughter Nancy.


My mother, the voodoo priestess.
While today she'd look like a member of a drumming circle, this scene -- along with her Latino name and jet black hair -- were cues to 1934 audiences: whatever happens, this dame has it coming. 

Just to make things more explicit, her husband, Stephen Lane, is rich, kind, a devoted husband and father, a captain of industry, and very white. Even his secretary, Gail, is in love with him. I want to be Stephen Lane.

The only thing wrong with him is that he lets little Nancy accompany Juanita (along with Gail and a nurse) for a three-week stay on San Christopher -- just another example of a man lacking a woman's intuition.


A vacation souvenir you don't want to see.
It's not Stephen's fault entirely. Throughout Black Moon, everyone who tries to warn him about Juanita's evil-eye excursion winds up on the wrong end of a dart gun, noose or, in the case of Nancy's nurse, a hot tar pit. By the time he finally shows up to bring everybody home, all hell is more or less literally breaking out. Typical family vacation.

Juanita, you see, has been spending more and more time on nighttime walks, returning glassy-eyed and woozy. While my excuse for such behavior involves the corner bar on 50-cent shot nights, Juanita has been sucked back into the voodoo world (where, according to Uncle John, her nursemaid Ruva took her to ceremonies as a child, where she first "tasted blood." Trust me, 50-cent shots do the trick better.)

That isn't Alka-Seltzer she's
putting into hubby's water glass.
Once Stephen shoots Kala, the village priest, in order to prevent a human sacrifice, the natives decide he must pay the price. Juanita's attempt at poisoning him goes wrong when it's accidentally ingested by Nancy instead. But like any good doctor, Uncle Jack has voodoo antidote in his doctor's bag. Unfortunately,it's an out-of-pocket cost.


"Just close your eyes, kid, you
won't feel a thing."
Unsatisfied with this bungled murder attempt, the natives kidnap Nancy in order for Juanita, now a high priestess, to make her daughter a human sacrifice. This was a pretty stunning turn of events for a studio movie at the time -- even more so when Juanita brings a saber down at her daughter's head, only to be shot dead by Stephen just in time. Yes, typical family vacation alright.

An extremely entertaining, well-made picture with effective black & white cinematography, Black Moon was wild enough to get it banned in the UK. There's violence aplenty, with the aftermath of the nurse's tar pit death particularly gruesome, while Uncle Jack's treatment of blacks rivals what you'd see at Trump rallies. (Uncle Jack, meanwhile, might be the first person in talkies to utter the immortal line, "The natives are restless tonight." Gee, I wonder why, Skippy.)


"Look, Jack, aren't there any shorts
around here? I'm getting a rash behind
my knees."
Then you have Juanita, who's forgets to wear certain undergarments while wearing slinky, see-through dresses. As usual in pre-code movies, everybody seems to have packed their finest clothes for this hot, humid hellhole that lacks even an Applebee's. Even Stephen and Uncle Jack dine in formal-wear even though they never leave the house. You're white, we get it.



"Remember, boss, I'm on your side."
By the way, just about the only black character who isn't a killer or zombie-maker is the Georgia-born Lunch McClaren. As played by the great Clarence Muse, is as close to a fully-rounded person black you could find studio pictures at the time, being a self-made man with a ferry-boat business, a warm singing voice, and wry sense of humor. He's possibly the only black character you'll see in a mainstream '30s movie who's allowed to shoot a gun with the white folks, and not get fired upon himself. 

Gail, Stephen and Nancy consider
using Trivago for their next trip


Other than Muse, Black Moon's only recognizable actor is Fay Wray, as the faithful secretary Gail, thanks to the previous year's hit, King Kong. Columbia executives were probably thinking, "Hey, let's hire this Fay Wray dish, she knows her way around a jungle." Her hair in Black Moon is black instead of the platinum blonde she's famous for, perhaps so as not to outshine the actress playing Juanita, Dorothy Burgess.

No problem -- Gail winds up with Jack after he shoots his wife to death. That's one way of landing a husband.



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