Need help figuring out what to watch this week on Warner Archive Instant? The Retro Set has you covered with our must watch Warner Archive picks! Each week, we select a small handful of must watch titles from the Warner Archive Instant catalog: some hidden gems, others well-known and beloved classics. All deserving of a look or two (or five).
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This week we’ve got a “catty” Val Lewton, Marion Davies proving that stalking ain’t so bad after all (as long as its set to music), and that most aesthetically perfect pairing of all time: Olivia and Errol.
Wade’s Pick: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Val Lewton was a rare Hollywood breed. Charged by RKO to make “cheap horror films” for less than $150,000 a piece, with the studio choosing the titles, Lewton was allowed free reign beyond that. And what he did was reinvent the horror film, by producing eerie, suspenseful “fantasy” and psychological stories, where the violence, if any, takes place off-screen. While we rarely praise the producer for creating and imagining cinematic worlds, Lewton did that in spades, bringing in such talented directors as Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson to assist in bringing his visions to the screen.
During his short but fruitful period at RKO, he pumped out money-making classics such as Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Cat People was such a surprise money-maker, he was ordered to make a sequel, titled The Curse of the Cat People (1944) by the studio. Going his own way as usual, there are elements and a thin plotline that connect this film to the original, but there is nary a cat person to be found. Instead, Lewton crafted an unsettling and dreamlike story of a lonely little girl who “imagines” a playmate out of images she’s seen from her father’s deceased first wife (Simeone Simon), the cursed “cat woman.” Its brisk 70 minutes includes enough chills for any fan of mystery and suspense, with homages to everything from the headless horseman, to haunted houses and even Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham. Any chance to screen a Val Lewton “mini-masterpiece” is an event, but you’d better hurry, The Curse of the Cat People is slated to leave the WAC Instant Streaming list soon!
Carley’s Pick: Going Hollywood (1933)
Going Hollywood is, without question, a curious oddity. The outrageous storyline, and some unfortunate early 20th Century stereotyping (Davies dons blackface, Crosby and others use clipped “Chinese” accents for comedy), not to mention a strange lack of chemistry between Davies and Crosby (lets just say they’re no Keeler and Powell), keep Going Hollywood from being as memorable as its early ’30s counterparts. But when it works it works, and it works when MGM’s spared-no-expense productions are at full throttle (even as over the top as they are) and when Davies and Crosby are set free from melodramatic dialogue to do what they do best: sing (Bing) and comedy (Davies). It also provides an insightful glimpse at the Hollywood struggle between reality and fantasy that continues down to this very day–how to really know if something, or someone, is real or if it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
On paper, it’s a home run. One of the most ambitious directors in Hollywood (the under-appreciated maverick Raoul Walsh), a popular silent star who’d made a successful transition to sound (the underrated comedienne Marion Davies), and the most popular crooner in the world (the magnificent Bing Crosby). On film it’s an enjoyable, lavish effort from MGM … it’s also completely off its rocker. Moral of the story? Serial stalking ain’t so bad after all. Marion Davies is a French teacher who falls in love with radio crooner Bing Crosby (so far so normal) but feels as though her life is destined to cross his and follows him across country to Hollywood — not to be in pictures, but to surreptitiously throw herself at Crosby’s feet. Throw in some truly bizarre musical numbers, as well as some of Crosby’s finest crooning, and you’ve got yourself a heckuva mixed bag. But a vastly entertaining one. Check out Going Hollywood … and make darn sure you watch it sober.
Jill’s Pick: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, one of the most romantic leading pairs of all-time, made their on-screen couple debut in the swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935). Audiences fell in love: they couldn’t get enough of Flynn’s dashing good looks and de Havilland’s sophisticated beauty. Warner Brothers realized they had a winning combination, and immediately cast the pair in the historical war drama The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Based on a story of the same name adapted from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Light Brigade is surprisingly dark and tragic (read: it ain’t no The Adventures of Robin Hood).
Errol Flynn is Major Jeffrey Vickers, a British Army officer stationed in India. Unbeknownst to him, Jeffrey’s fiancee Elsa Campbell (de Havilland), has fallen in love with his brother, Perry (played by Flynn look-a-like Patric Knowles), a lower-ranking officer in the same outfit. Elsa’s father, the company’s colonel (the always grumpy Donald Crisp), condemns the secret love affair between his daughter and Perry. Colonel Campbell finds Perry to be impertinent and untrustworthy for going behind his brother Jeffrey’s back. Perry confronts Jeffrey about his love for Elsa, and let’s just say it does not go well. Meanwhile, a more serious issue requires the attention of Colonel Campbell and the Vickers brothers: Surat Khan, once considered an ally to the British Army, leads a massacre where most of the victims are the wives and children of British and allied soldiers. Jeffrey and Elsa barely escape the horrific event, and must deal not only the death of hundreds, but the death of their relationship. Forever changed by what he experienced at the massacre, Jeffrey attempts to find a way to avenge the deaths of the innocent.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is definitely not a feel-good story for our leading couple (see the aforementioned The Adventures of Robin Hood if you’re looking for sparkling technicolor fun). The massacre is a brutally violent, beautifully shot scene that is particularly hard to watch. Killing sprees aside, Light Brigade is quite romantic, if unconventionally so, and features exceptional performances from not only Flynn and de Havilland, but an outstanding supporting cast.