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Friday, 21 April 2017

Paradise Alley (1962)

My love affair with the Showcase Channel is beginning to fade as they seem to have a limited number of movies in their repertoire, which they keep repeating, and the screenings are interrupted willy-nilly by ads with depressing frequency. However I still have a backlog to get through and hope that some new offerings might surface, so I'm enjoying the channel -- for now. This week I watched a selection of what I can only call French farces -- not quite up to the level of God coming down to earth -- but with some modest entertainment value. First up was "Proper Attire Required" (1997) where a pauper who has wrecked a taxi-driver's Audi is mistakenly supposed to be the feared expected Audi-tor by some corrupt hotel managers, who wine and dine him in error. It was all rather sweet but silly, especially since the script failed to wrap up the fate of some country bumpkins who were trapped in the meat locker and who have probably frozen to death by now.

Even more minor was "Love Vertigo" (2001) where a potential groom develops wedding jitters and envisions various scenarios before the bride backs out of marrying him. The main point of interest was his clandestine love interest played by Julie Gayet, who now sixteen years on has become M. Hollande's paramour. The short movie "Versailles Rive-Gauche" (1992) was also mildly amusing as everyman-schmo Denis Podalydes strives to impress the young lady who has come to dinner, while his mini flat is increasingly invaded by an assortment of family, friends, drunks, and a five-piece band who have lost their rehearsal space.

But on to the above-captioned film which is not to be confused with the later Stallone vehicle of the same title. This is a fascinating little poverty row movie which probably deserves cult status, if only it was not so difficult to access a copy. It was written, directed, and produced by Hugo Haas, who also takes the lead role -- so 'vanity project' doesn't begin to cover it. Haas was a popular Czech film star in the 1930s, but forced to emigrate with the Nazi invasion. He started small in America doing voice-overs in propaganda films and moved on to character parts after the war. When he had earned sufficient dollars, he began churning out his own B-movie potboilers, usually sensationalistic in feel, casting himself in "Blue Angel" scenarios of the older intelligent man who is besotted with a young hussy.

In this his last film -- actually shot in 1958 but not released until 1961/62 -- he changes pace by playing a down-on-his-luck 'actor' who takes lodging in a seedy boarding house in the condemned area of the title. It turns out however that he was once a famed director of classic films, Karl von Stallburg, who was committed to a sanatorium by greedy relatives. On his release, he lands in this quasi-slum where he is horrified by bickering neighbours and would-be juvenile delinquents. By chance one of the lonely residents is a veteran cameraman, played by silent comic Chester Conklin, who has kept his (non-working) camera as a memento, along with other movie memorabilia. Between them they concoct a plan to shoot a documentary in the Alley, provisionally entitled "The Chosen and the Condemned" -- only without any film in the camera. They see this as a means of healing the neighbourhood since of course EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES!

The film is mainly notable for its cast of old-timers which include Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), Billy Gilbert (known for his sneezing routines and a classic comic foil), Marie Windsor (still a sexpot in her forties), Corinne Griffith (a star of the silent screen), and other even more minor players. Unfortunately the love interest young leads are taken by Don Sullivan (whose two previous roles were in "The Giant Gila Monster" and "Teenage Zombies") and Carol Morris who is credited as "Miss Universe" (Lord knows when!) Despite this mishmash of players the story develops nicely with the enthusiasm of the local residents, eager to shine in this make-believe film. It even manages to heal the ongoing spat between Hamilton and Gilbert when she is cast as a disguised Russian countess whose hand he must kiss. When they finally 'shoot' this scene, it turns out that she has soaked her hand in vinegar, to the general amusement of all.

Since this strange fable is really a sort of fairy tale, some studio bigwigs get wind of the wheeze and offer to finance making the movie a reality, agreeing to put all of these would-be actors on their payroll. Yeah, yeah, yeah! 

Haas is a largely forgotten figure in Hollywood history, but he deserves to be remembered, if only for this unusual swan song.  
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