Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Gravity Falls: Legend of the Gnome Gemulets - ZHOFRPH WR JUDYLWB IDOOV

My first exposure to Gravity Falls, a Disney cartoon best known for its heavy mystery element as it follows twins Dipper and Mabel Pines’ summer vacation, came in the form of a panel at San Diego Comic-Con promoting a few Disney Channel series; I was there for more information about Wander Over Yonder (which I would later grow to dislike outside main villain Lord Hater), however what little I saw of Gravity Falls (which at the time was only 5 episodes into its run) had me hooked. Though it was a small panel, it became an interesting experience seeing the panel room for Gravity Falls only expand over the years as its popularity grew (and even then the panel I first discovered the show at already had a small, yet very devoted following). I have since become a big fan of the show myself, absorbing any piece of Gravity Falls media I could get my hands on through legal channels, including a Choose-Your-Own Adventure-style book and a copy of Journal 3 signed by series creator Alex Hirsch himself.

While I did not have a 3DS at the time it came out, my acquisition of one to play Yo-Kai Watch allowed me a chance to finally play Gravity Falls: Legend of the Gnome Gemulets. One thing that caught my interest prior to playing was the fact that Alex Hirsch and other members of the Gravity Falls team were actually very involved in the game’s development, ensuring that it was a true Gravity Falls experience. This is very definitely the case, though the game is still a little lacking.

The Gnome Kingdom is in danger, and Jeff the Gnome is unable to handle his duties as leader of the Gnomes. When Dipper and Mabel enter the Gnome Forest, Jeff recruits them to search for powerful artifacts known as the Gnome Gemulets, each related to a particular element. When Jeff offers Gnome Gold in exchange, Grunkle Stan appears and accepts the offer. After obtaining Gnome weapons, Dipper and Mabel set off on a quest to find the Gnome Gemulets and restore magic to the Gnome Kingdom.

The gameplay is that of a 2D sidescroller with some Metroidvania elements, making good use of the UbiArt Framwork Engine to replicate the look and feel of the animated series. Dipper and Mabel each have their own unique weapons and abilities, including a sweater and a grappling hook for Mabel as well as battle cuffs and a flashlight for Dipper, each of which can be upgraded by either Soos or Old Man McGucket. There is also the ability to switch between Dipper and Mabel freely, which is handy for sections that require the two to split up and reunite later. There’s also some puzzle segments, some of which make use of the 3DS’ touch screen, plus various items scattered between levels to collect and return to different citizens of Gravity Falls.

A typical objective. (From left: Wendy, Mabel, Dipper, Stan)

Things can, however, get a little repetitive, mainly in terms of combat against various supernatural oddities. This also applies to the boss fights, including the final boss, which doesn’t really do anything to stand itself out from the previous bosses. There is some variety in the different sections in each level, however you will end up practically memorizing each area as you go back and search for any missing items you haven’t collected yet, some of which can be hidden by foreground objects or going in a direction you wouldn’t think to go in previously (Protip: Look behind you at the start of every level). You can check what’s remaining in the touch screen’s menus, which are modeled after Journal 3 from the series (it even includes recreations of select pages).

On a positive note, the general experience of the game nails what it’s like to watch an episode of the show, down to the visuals and especially its style of humor. Character personalities are very much intact, helped by the fact that actual Gravity Falls staff were involved in the development as mentioned above, to the point where I could actually hear the characters saying their lines in my head in spite of the absence of voice acting in the game. It even includes the series’ signature use of cryptograms scattered throughout, mostly relegated to dialogue (which is explained away as chanting), including at least one hidden within optional dialogue when talking to certain characters.

For Gravity Falls fans keeping track, there is evidence that the game takes place within the timeframe of Season 2, namely after the episode “Northwest Mansion Mystery” (S2E10). The evidence is contained within character dialogue, which can contain various callbacks to the show in addition to certain background elements, adding to the overall Gravity Falls experience. As a result, the game generally makes more sense and is much more fulfilling if you are already a Gravity Falls fan.

Gravity Falls: Legend of the Gnome Gemulets does everything right in recreating the experience of watching Gravity Falls, down to its characters and environments (and even music). However, the game could potentially have been longer and offered more variety in some aspects, though the various callbacks to the show and hidden cryptograms seem to be an attempt at making up for this. If you are not a fan of Gravity Falls, this game may not interest you much, as it is very definitely made with the fans in mind. If you are a fan of Gravity Falls, this game is still worth checking out if you want to get more out of the series’ lore and characters. If this game interests you and you have not yet seen the show already, I would highly recommend watching the show from the beginning and in its proper order to get more enjoyment out of the game and better understand its numerous callbacks to the series proper.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Batman: Assault on Arkham - A Better Suicide Squad

Last year, Warner Bros. released Suicide Squad, the third film in the DCEU. While Suicide Squad had promise, it failed to fully connect with its audience due to its odd pacing, overabundance of underdeveloped characters and poorly written script. Two years prior, DC and Warner Bros. released a direct-to-video animated film also based on the Suicide Squad, but this time set within the Batman: Arkham universe. Though its existence is perhaps not as widely known, it does manage to handle the concept of the team much better.

After Batman (Kevin Conroy) rescues Riddler (Matthew Gray Gubler) from a black ops assassination and returns him to Arkham Asylum, Amanda Waller (C. C. H. Pounder) invokes Priority Ultraviolet, which involves capturing and gathering a group of villains for the Suicide Squad. Said group is composed of Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito), Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis), Deadshot (Neal McDonough), Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), KGBeast (Nolan North), Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale) and King Shark (John DiMaggio). Their mission is to break into Arkham Asylum and recover a thumbdrive hidden in Riddler’s cane, as the drive contains information about the Suicide Squad that Riddler acquired while employed by Waller and intended to make public. To keep the group in line, Waller has implanted nano-bombs within their necks, which KGBeast unwittingly demonstrates. At the same time the Suicide Squad set out on their mission, Batman is searching Gotham for the location of a dirty bomb planted by Joker (Troy Baker).

The Suicide Squad (Left to Right): Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis),
Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), King Shark (John DiMaggio), Deadshot (Neal McDonough),
Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito) and Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch).

The plot, though simple, is executed well and does a good job at tying its two main threads together and balancing its core cast of villains. There is enough screentime for each Suicide Squad member, apart from KGBeast, to get a sense of who they are and how they interact with each other, even for the lesser-known characters. For example, there is sense of a budding romance between Killer Frost and King Shark as well as a competitive rivalry between Deadshot and Captain Boomerang. Naturally the 76-minute runtime doesn’t allow for any one of the characters to be fully fleshed out (especially KGBeast, Black Spider and Amanda Waller) and the audience is expected to already be familiar with characters and relationships as presented within the Batman: Arkham universe. Still, the story is at least accessible for the uninitiated.

The animation is also done very well and is faithful to the style of the Batman: Arkham games, including the more muted color palette. While the designs of the characters are very distinct from one another, Deadshot and Black Spider have somewhat similar designs when unmasked. Befitting its PG-13 rating, the movie also doesn’t shy away from hints at nudity, mainly with Harley Quinn and Killer Frost, or use of swearing. On that note, the voice acting is also pretty good, particularly the performances of Kevin Conroy and Troy Baker, the latter of whom does a convincing Mark Hamill impression.

Batman: Assault on Arkham is pretty good overall. Although the plot is simple, it does a good job of highlighting the characters and giving the audience an idea of who some of the more lesser-knowns are. The action does a good job of portraying each character’s abilities and the animation stays true to the style of the Batman: Arkham Universe. If you’re a fan of the Batman: Arkham games, then this is a worthy entry to watch. If you’re a fan of the Suicide Squad but found the 2016 DCEU film lacking, then consider viewing Assault on Arkham.

Stubs - Night Nurse

Night Nurse (1931) Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable. Directed by William Wellman. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, Charles Kenyon Based on the novel Night Nurse by Dora Macy (New York, 1930). Producer: None Credited. Runtime: 72 minutes. U.S.A. Crime, Drama, Mystery

As discussed here previously, Pre-Code Hollywood films are not filled with debauchery or nudity, but deal more openly with issues that Hollywood would have to hint at from 1934 until the mid-1960s, when all provincial thoughts were tossed aside. Films are labelled Pre-Code the same way home video releases sometimes come in unrated versions. To be unrated, a film only has to differ in length from the version that was rated by the MPAA. It doesn’t take much, only a few seconds, to make a film unrated, in the much the same way that saying a film is Pre-Code means anything more than it was made before 1934.

Still, there are touches about Pre-Code films that you won’t see in films from the mid-30s on. Case in point, Night Nurse (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon and Joan Blondell. There was also a supporting actor you may have heard of in it as well, Clark Gable, who would someday warrant the title "The King of Hollywood". And to top it off, the film is directed by one of Hollywood’s early greats, William Wellman, who only a few years prior had directed Wings (1927), one of the better silent films; the first film to win “Best Picture” and the last, until The Artist (2011), to garner that honor.

All were brought together in a Warner Bros. film adaptation of the novel Night Nurse by Dora Macy, the non-de plume of Mrs. Fulton Oursler, printed only the year before. (Don’t go looking for the book, as I can’t find any reference to it other than it was the basis for this film.)

Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is at first rejected by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis).

In Night Nurse, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants very badly to be a nurse, but her lack of a high school degree gets her rejected by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the Superintendent of Nurses. But Lora’s fortunes change when she encounters the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Arthur Bell (Charles Winninger), in a revolving door. He knocks her purse out of her hands and while he picks up it contents, he becomes enamored with Lora. He intercedes on her behalf with Miss Dillon and gets the requirement waived.

A change encounter with a smitten Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) gets Lora the job.

Miss Dillon assigns another nursing student, Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell), to help get her settled and assigns them to be roommates in the dorms provided for student nurses. While Miss Maloney is sarcastic, the two become best friends. Maloney warns her about the interns, one of whom has a crush on Lora.

Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell) doesn't seem thrilled to be assigned Lora as a roommate.

One night when Maloney and Lora are out past curfew, the intern puts a skeleton in Lora’s bed. Her screams are enough to wake Miss Dillon, who is across the hall. Suspecting that the women have broken her rules, she comes down harder on Maloney, who has broken the rules more often.

A practical joke and the girls' reaction to it gives away that they've been out past curfew.

We also see the two nurses as they learn their craft. When both are assigned to the emergency room, Lora ends up treating bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon) for a gunshot wound. Even though she is required by law, and admonished by Maloney, to report any gunshot wound to the police, she doesn’t, earning Mortie’s gratitude.

While working in the Emergency room they meet bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon), who has been shot.

The final test for both nurses is surgery, with Lora worried about how she’ll react to all the blood. A bottle of Rye is delivered from Mortie as a good luck gesture. When Dr. Bell’s patient dies on the table, Lora makes it through, but faints to the floor when she is alone.

After the patient dies, Lora passes out in surgery.

This is followed by graduation, with the nurses singing a song related to Florence Nightingale as part of their graduation.

Maloney's heart isn't in singing the Florence Nightingale song.

After graduation, Lora and Maloney accept a private nursing job, through Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde), caring for Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), children of a wealthy alcoholic socialite, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). Maloney has the day shift and Lora the night.

At the Ritchey mansion there always seems to be a party going on. Lora’s first meeting with Mrs. Ritchey comes at the urging of Eagan (Edward Nugent), one of the perpetually drunken party guests. Mrs. Ritchey has collapsed on the floor in a drunken stupor. Nick (Clark Gable), the family chauffeur, intercedes and tells Lora to pump out Mrs. Ritchey’s stomach. But Lora insists she doesn’t have the right equipment to do the procedure and when she tries to call for help, Nick stops her. When Lora persists, Nick punches her (off screen), knocking her out and onto the floor. He eventually carries her out of the room.

After knocking her out, Nick (Clark Gable) carries Lora out of the room. Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte
Merriam) and party guest Eagan (Edward Nugent) are too drunk to help or care.

The next morning, Lora, a bandage on her chin, goes to see Dr. Ranger to complain about Nick. But Dr. Ranger is unsympathetic and while he plans to do nothing about the incident, still promises her that it will never happen again. Lora is convinced it won’t happen to her because she quits.

Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde) doesn't want to hear about Lora's problems with Nick.

Lora goes immediately to see Dr. Bell and tells him that she thinks the children are not getting good care, but at first Dr. Bell doesn’t want to interfere with another doctor’s case. But he listens, suspicious about Dr. Ranger’s treatment of the children. He convinces Lora to stay on at the Ritchey’s as the best way to take care of the girls and she goes back to Dr. Ranger and gets her job back.

After moving back to the mansion, Lora runs into Mortie again while she’s at a pharmacy picking up medicine. Over a soda, he tells her that he’s quit the racket and she believes him.

Lora runs into Mortie and they share a soft drink.

Later, at the mansion, Eagan tries to molest Lora in front of a passed out Mrs. Ritchey and Lora decks him.

Eagan gets more than he bargained for when he puts the moves on Lora.

Lora is alarmed by Dr. Ranger’s treatment of the girls, whom she feels are being starved to death. Finally, Nanny Ritchey is so weak that Lora fears for her life and tries unsuccessfully to get Mrs. Ritchey to show some concern. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Friderici), who up until then has had a hands-off approach to the children, also finally becomes concerned. She gets drunk on Mortie’s liquor and tells Lora that Nick and Dr. Ranger are conspiring to starve the children to death in order to gain control of their trust fund. The trust fund will pass to the drunken and infatuated Mrs. Ritchie, and Nick will marry her for the money.

Mrs. Maxwell also suggests a milk bath, a home remedy to bring down Nanny’s fever, but there is not enough milk in the house and the stores are closed. Lora is not sure that will help, but she can’t reach anyone by phone to help her.

Into the mansion walks Mortie, still a bootlegger after all, on his way to make a delivery to Nick. Lora implores him to help her and he goes out looking for milk. He ends up breaking into a Jewish delicatessen to get what she needs. Lora tells Mortie that she can’t get a hold of Dr. Bell and he disappears.

The bath doesn’t work and Nick flushes the milk down the drain.

Dr. Bell shows up and tells Lora that some guy named Mortie tracked him down and threatened him if he didn’t go to the Ritchey Mansion. Dr. Bell examines Nanny and wants to take her to the hospital, but Nick knocks him out.

Mortie arrives with a gun in his pocket and keeps Nick at bay so Lora can try to save Nanny.

Mortie shows up again, this time with a gun, and prevents Nick from interfering any further. Dr. Bell suggests the only thing they can do is an emergency blood transfusion between Lora and Nanny, since both have the same blood type.

The transfusion saves Nanny Ritchey's (Marcia Mae Jones) life.

The next morning, Lora awakes and finds that Nanny has been saved. Still a little woozy, she insists on going to the police to report Nick and asks Mortie to give her a lift. He wants to keep his arm around her and so she has to shift the gears for him. Mortie tells her not to worry about Nick, as some of his friends have taken care of him.

While Mortie is supposed to be taking Lora to the police, he
informs her that his friends have taken care of Nick.

To emphasize this, we see out the front of a rushing ambulance as it pulls into the hospital and up to the emergency room. When the doctors rush out to help, they’re told it’s a morgue job now for a man dressed in a chauffeur's uniform.

The star of the film, Barbara Stanwyck, began her career as a Ziegfeld girl in 1922 at the ripe old age of 15. She would become a Broadway star in Burlesque (1927), her first leading role. She lost out on the lead in the silent film Broadway Nights (1927) because she couldn’t cry on cue during the audition. Instead she ended up with a minor and uncredited role as a dancer in the now lost film.

Her first sound film was The Locked Door (1929), followed up by the also forgettable Mexicali Rose (1929). It was Frank Capra who gave her the big break in Ladies of Leisure (1930). Night Nurse was one of five films she made that year. Unlike many actresses of the time, Stanwyck was more of a freelance actress, making films for United Artists, Columbia and Warner Bros. early in her career.
She’s good in the role of Lora, able to show her earnest determination against all odds. Stanwyck’s character is sexy enough to get doors opened and, once they are, smart enough to take advantage of the opportunity presented.

Her co-star in Night Nurse was Ben Lyon. While not a name much remembered today, in silent films, Lyon had been successfully paired with Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, Barbara La Marr, and Mary Astor. His best-known role may have been Hell’s Angels (1930), which was also responsible for launching the career of actress Jean Harlow. When his acting career waned in the early 1940s, he took a job working at 20th Century Fox. It was there, on July 17, 1946, that he met a young aspiring actress named Norma Jeane Dougherty. She was a woman he called "Jean Harlow all over again!" He would organize a color screen test for her, rename her and sign her; the legend of Marilyn Monroe was born.

In Night Nurse, he plays a lovable bad guy, a bootlegger with a soft spot for Lora. It’s a bit of a cliché character, but he carries it off rather effortlessly.

Joan Blondell came to Hollywood with James Cagney as the two recreated their stage roles in the 1930 play Penny Arcade in the film Sinner’s Holiday. This film was supposed to reunite them again, but Cagney’s career trajectory changed with the release of The Public Enemy (1931) and he was now a star. The role of Nick, originally intended for Cagney, fell to Clark Gable, in a year in which he would appear in 12 films.

Blondell may have been getting typecast, as once again she is in familiar territory as a cute but sarcastic friend of the lead. She gets off one of the better lines in the film. When introducing Lora to life at the hospital, she quips Say, I was afraid the hospital would burn down before I could get into it. Now I have to watch myself with matches.” I know she didn’t write it, but she delivers it like it was her own idea.

While Clark Gable was not a star at the time, apparently Stanwyck and Blondell both knew he was star material. In the biography, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith, the actress recalled “The instant Clark walked onto the set I knew - we all knew - that here was a striking personality. He commanded attention." Wellman also realized his star potential, writing in his autobiography, A Short Time For Insanity, that Gable was "one of the most despicable heavies imaginable, and he did it with such savoir faire that he became a star. The powers-that-be at Warner Brothers liked his performance but decided he was not worth fooling with, not star material: his ears were too big. They forgot to look at his dimples and listen to his voice and see his smile." MGM noticed though and signed him to a long-term contract the same year and he quickly established himself as one of the studio's top male leads.

Clark Gable plays Nick, the Ritchey family chauffeur and all-around unsavory guy.

Gable’s Nick character is pretty one-dimensional. He manages to play handsome and mean at the same time. While this is not the film where he got to show what he could really do on screen, he still makes an impression and not just because it is Clark Gable in an early role. His Nick might have been remembered even if Gable never became the King of Hollywood.

There is a real efficiency to the story-telling, which seems to be typical for William Wellman’s work at this time. There is just enough exposition given to take you to the next scene. And the film never stops moving the story forward. The pacing seems to be somewhat typical of the Warner Bros. style, though Wellman still manages to make the audience care for Lora despite the quick tempo. Maybe not as grandiose a story as Wings, but Wellman still tells a good story. And there is a lot of story covered in its 72-minute run time.

There are so many things that recommend Night Nurse despite its cookie cutter approach to filmmaking. This is a chance to see so many good actors at the beginning of their careers in one film. If you like Stanwyck you won’t be disappointed, neither will you be if you’re a Blondell fan or one of Clark Gable’s. While not a great film, Night Nurse is still compelling and a good example of Pre-code Hollywood at its best.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island

The genre of 3D Platformers has certainly evolved over time, however there have been recent efforts to bring back the type of game you’d see more from the PS2/N64 era, such as Ratchet & Clank (2016), Yooka-Laylee and the recently-released Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island. When I first heard about this game, the premise of a game of this type intrigued me, as did the art direction and the Ratchet & Clank vibes I got from promotional material. During the first week of release (currently as of this writing), the game was actually discounted from $15 to ~$10, and so I bought it for PS4 via PSN (as there is no physical release of the game as of this writing). The game turned out to be a bit shorter than I was expecting it to be, though in the end I was satisfied with the outcome in spite of its setbacks.

The game opens with Skylar Lynxe held captive by CTR, an evil computer seeking to turn her into a living weapon while in the process of erasing her memories. Though she cannot speak, a robotic arm installed in place of her right arm acts as a living computer, and so turns against its master, CTR, to help Skylar escape. After escaping in a pod, Skylar crash-lands on Clover Island, an island shaped exactly like a 3-leaf clover, where she meets an owl named Plux Owlsley, who has been waiting for his father to come back to him. With the inhabitants of Clover Island in danger from CTR, Plux uses his knowledge of the island to aid Skylar in stopping CTR’s takeover.

Skylar (left) and Plux (right).

The basic premise is not unique, however there is an evident effort made to give the story its own identity, even while acknowledging its own clichés. There is some humor here and there, though I have a feeling that a (somehow predictable) reference to Miley Cyrus’ infamous 2013 song “Wrecking Ball” might seem dated for those that don’t know what it is. Though the overall game has more of a Ratchet & Clank sort of vibe, the general relationship between Skylar and Plux can be more compared to Jak and Daxter (as per The Precursor Legacy), in that Skylar is mute while Plux offers some snarky commentary and puzzle hints (there’s even mention of something similar to the Precursors from said game, though that sort of thing is not unique to Jak and Daxter); there’s even a Trophy/Achievement you can get for listening to a specific dialogue exchange. The characterization of Plux is also admittedly a little inconsistent, in that he is said to have great knowledge of Clover Island and is partnered with Skylar for that reason, however this knowledge doesn’t come up very often and most of the time he simply fulfills the aforementioned “Daxter” role.

The gameplay itself is simple, yet effective. Like the games it is trying to emulate, the levels are linear, however there is also some incentive to explore the world to find hidden secrets, contributing to the overall Ratchet & Clank vibe. Throughout the game, gems can be collected within each of the levels, whether out in the open or hidden inside crates and pottery (and defeated enemies). The gems can restore your health over time upon being collected, otherwise they can be used to open cages holding Clover Island residents captive; there are plenty of gems to find within the game world, so you don’t really need to worry about running low. Skylar can also obtain special gadgets that offer different abilities (including the ability to slow down time), which actually gives the game a sort of interesting Metroidvania element to it. The game also has some well-constructed puzzles, which, while not that difficult, can still provide a good challenge.

Somehow I manage to keep playing games where it's difficult to find screenshots.

The graphics are actually decent, fitting in with the game’s art style and the cartoonish styles of the games inspiring it. The cutscenes are in a traditional style with limited animation, though it can be argued this is meant to emulate a comic book feel. The voice acting is also decent, especially given there are only three voice actors and each voice still sounds unique from each other. I’m not sure what I can say about the music, although I can say the sound design is otherwise handled well. There is, however, an occasional issue with the framerate, as it can slow down significantly when there are too many enemies on-screen. There’s also an issue with the camera, as the default settings in the middle of the slider were actually a bit too sensitive for me, resulting in me having to lower the settings to get it to a more manageable speed.

Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island is actually pretty well-made despite its faults, even for an indie title. Some elements of the game may seem familiar to those familiar with older 3D Platformers, however the game does a good job in emulating that style of game, delivering on what it set out to be. It’s not a perfect game and it may seem a bit short for some, however it’s worth giving a go, especially if you can get it at a good discount. While delving in genre clichés, it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into making it a solid new IP. Though I honestly have some doubt about the game warranting a sequel, since some past games with intriguing concepts never really made it far as a series (ex. Blinx the Time Sweeper, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy), I can actually see the potential for a future follow-up game to further improve and expand upon both the core characters and the general concept as a whole.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Stubs - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Mary Clare. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. Produced by Edward Black. Black and White. United Kingdom. Drama, Comedy, Mystery, Thriller.

There never seems to be enough time to watch everything you want to. Sometimes I record movies on my DVR with the thought of someday watching them. Such was the case with The Lady Vanishes, which was the oldest selection on my DVR, having been recorded a couple of years ago when it appeared on TCM’s Sundays with Hitch series a couple of years ago. Finally, with a free Saturday night we had a chance to watch it. Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder what took me so long.

By the mid-1930s there was no bigger filmmaker in England than Alfred Hitchcock. Already, American producers, most specifically David O. Selznick, had their eyes on him and it was only a matter of time before he came to Hollywood. But before he made the move, Hitchcock had a few films still to make for Gaumont British. The penultimate one was one of his better ones, The Lady Vanishes.

But Hitchcock was not the first British filmmaker to try to make a movie out of Ethel Line White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. Originally called The Lost Lady, a young filmmaker named Ray William Neill was assigned by producer Edward Block to make the movie. A crew was sent to Yugoslavia to do some background shots, but when authorities found out they weren’t portrayed well in the script, they were kicked out of the country. The film project was abandoned, but not for long.

Needing a project to fulfill his contract with Black, Hitchcock was given this project using the original screenplay, though some tightening was done on the beginning and ending. When casting the film, Hitchcock originally wanted Lilli Palmer, a German-born actress who would later marry Rex Harrison. Palmer had fled Germany when the Nazis took over and gone to Paris, where her cabaret act garnered the attention of Gaumont British, which signed her to a contract in 1935.

Instead of Palmer, Hitchcock went with Margaret Lockwood for the lead. Lockwood, who had been born in British controlled India, had been on stage since she was twelve and in films since 1934. Her big break came in The Beloved Vagabond (1936) starring Maurice Chevalier. Still, Lockwood was still relatively unknown when Hitchcock cast her.

Michael Redgrave, the patriarch for the acting family, was even more of an unknown in films. At the time, Redgrave had only been acting professionally since 1934 and had made his London debut in 1936, in Love’s Labours Lost at the Old Vic. The Lady Vanishes would be his first major role in cinema. The film would make Redgrave an international star, even though the actor and director did not get along very well. Redgrave wanted more rehearsals, while Hitchcock valued spontaneity.

The film was shot in England, but U.S. studio MGM was also involved. British Gaumont and the Hollywood studio had recently signed an agreement by which MGM would pay half of the production costs for a British Gaumont film they would release in the U.S. Even with this in place, 20th Century Fox would handle the film’s U.S. distribution.

The Lady Vanishes opens in the lobby of the "Gasthof Petrus" inn in the country of Bandrika, where English tourists are waiting for the next train out. Keen to get back to England are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), who want to return in time to see the last days of a cricket test match in Manchester. (A test match in cricket is a competition between two national teams that last up to four days, if not longer, and “test” the endurance and talents of the two teams.) But travel in and out has been stopped due to an avalanche that has blocked the only rail line.

Passengers waiting for the train out of Bandrika include Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne).

Stranded, the tourists are forced to scramble for rooms and food. Charters and Caldicott are late to the front desk and the only room available is the maid’s room. The two men are very shy around her, even though they are not too shy to share her single bed.

Another couple, a lawyer named Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and "Mrs. Todhunter" (Linden Travers), take separate rooms, much to Mrs. Todhunter’s chagrin.

But there is one guest who seems to have the run of the place, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood). She is there with her girlfriends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart). Iris is on her way home to marry a man described as a “blue-blooded cheque chaser” and is on what would be the equivalent to a girls’ weekend in Vegas prior to her wedding, only they’ve chosen Bandrika, "one of Europe's few undiscovered corners."

When Iris and her friends breeze into the hotel, the manager (Emile Boreo) is at her beck and call. Her room is already available and she orders room service. Upstairs in her room, her friends try and talk her out of getting married, but Iris is ready to settle down.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on a pre-wedding trip with a couple of her friends.

Meanwhile, Charters and Caldicott dress for dinner and force their way to the first open table only to find out that there is no more food. Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an older Englishwoman with a fondness for tweed, offers to share her cheese with her tablemates. She tells them that she’s been in Bandrika as a governess and music teacher and is anxious to return to England.

Charters and Caldicott dress for a dinner they won't be eating.

Later, after Blanche and Julie have returned to their room, both Iris and Miss Froy are disturbed by the loud noise coming from the room upstairs. Not only is there loud music, but dancing as well. Iris calls the manager, who dutifully goes upstairs to confront the occupant.

Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is recording the movements of local folkdancers up in his room.

In the room, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is putting three locals through a folkdance so that he can sketch the various positions for a book he is writing. Unable to get Gilbert to shut up, the manager comes up with another plan and, fresh from another bribe from Iris, has the man kicked out of his room under a rouse that it was rented by someone else first.

But Gilbert does not go gently into the night and instead invades Iris’ room, threatening to share her bed unless she gets the manager to reverse his stance and get him back his room. Wanting to avoid a scandal, Iris acquiesces.

Gilbert bursts into Iris' room and creates enough of a nuisance that she recants her getting him evicted.

Meanwhile, Miss Froy enjoys the playing of a guitar playing man down in the garden. She doesn’t realize that the man is murdered in mid-song, as she throws down a tip to him.

The next morning, all the guests are at the station to catch the train out. When Iris goes to help Miss Froy with her bags when she is hit on the head by a flower pot. Her friends try to convince Iris to stay, but Miss Froy promises to look after her and helps the still stunned Iris onto the train. But once on board, Iris blacks out.

Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) takes charge of Iris after a potted plant lands on her head.

By the time she wakes up, the train is already moving and Miss Froy is sitting across from her. But they are not the only ones in the compartment, though none of them appear to understand English.

Miss Froy takes Iris to get some tea in the diner car. On the way, the train bucks and Miss Froy is thrown into the compartment occupied by the Todhunters. He is particularly rude and closes the door and draws the blinds after she excuses herself. In the dining car, Froy insists on a special Mexican tea that her still living octogenarian parents swear by, so she does, too. She gives a packet to the waiter with specific instructions on how to make it. When they find they have no sugar, Miss Froy asks Charters and Caldicott, who are using the cubes in the discussion of cricket strategy, to give her theirs.

When they finally get around to properly introducing themselves, Iris can’t hear Miss Froy over the noise of the train. To help out, Miss Froy spells out her last name with her finger in the fog on the window next to their seat. After they have their tea, they return to the compartment, where Iris falls asleep.

Miss Froy spells out her name on the window when the two of them have tea.

But when she awakes, Miss Froy is gone and no one, not even the strangers in her compartment, seem to remember there ever being anyone with her. When Iris goes looking for her, even Todhunter acts like he has never seen the woman. When his “Mrs.” Questions him about why he lied, he says he doesn’t want to get involved. Neither do Charters and Caldicott, who mostly don’t want anything to distract them from their discussions on Cricket and worry involvement might delay them from the match they are so anxious to get home for.

Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver) and his wife Signora Doppo (Selma Vaz Dias) don't remember seeing Miss Froy.

Iris finds an unlikely ally in Gilbert, who is also on the train in second class. He offers to help. They run into Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), who is a noted brain surgeon whom Gilbert has heard about. Dr. Hartz believes that Iris is merely imagining Miss Froy due to the blow on her head. Dr. Hartz is on the train to pick up a patient who is in desperate need of an operation.

Another woman dressed like Miss Froy appears in the compartment.

Even though another woman appears in the compartment dressed similarly to Miss Froy, Iris and Gilbert continue to search. At the next stop, they watch both sides of the train to see if Miss Froy gets off. Gilbert watches as Dr. Hartz’s patient is wheeled on already on a gurney and bandaged.

Gilbert and Iris speak with Mrs. Todhunter (Linden Travers) while Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) looks on.

Iris and Gilbert start their search of the train in the luggage car. They find the effects of Signor Doppo (Philip Leaver), who they discover is a magician on tour. When they start going through his things, including a vanishing lady’s closet used in the show, they muse that he might be involved in Miss Froy’s disappearance. Their suspicions seem to be justified when the knife-wielding Doppo attacks them. Gilbert manages to hold him off and with Iris’ assistance they knock him out. But when they check on him, they find they’d locked him in a chest with a false back and he’s managed to escape.

They continue to search the train and decide to check on Dr. Hartz’s patient, thinking she might be Miss Froy. Suspicious that the nun (Catherine Lacy) sitting by her bedside is wearing high heels, they are about to uncover the bandages when the doctor returns to the room. He offers to help them and agrees to plan their search over a drink. Dr. Hartz insists on meeting them so he can check on his patient. Instead, once they're alone, he conspires with the nun to poison Iris and Gilbert’s drinks.

While the nun (Catherine Lacy) watches, Gilbert examines Dr. Hartz's patient.

Over drinks, Dr. Hartz renews his offer to help them search. They tell him that they suspect the nun because of her high heels, but he insists the patient isn’t Miss Froy. He accompanies them back to a vacant compartment next to his and, assured that they are poisoned, confesses to them his part in the conspiracy. He then goes off to pay off his co-conspirators leaving Gilbert and Iris incapacitated, but not dead.

Dr. Hartz admits his plan to Gilbert and Iris after he thinks they've been poisoned.

But it turns out they weren’t poisoned after all. The fake nun, a fellow British citizen, didn’t follow through with Dr. Hartz’s instructions out of loyalty to her fellow countrymen. Gilbert rouses Iris, who had passed out, and they go into the next compartment and free Miss Froy and hide her in the closet of their compartment. They replace her with Mrs. Doppo, who has found out about their plan.

When the train stops at the next station near the border, Dr. Hartz and the gurney get off the train. It is not until he gets on the ambulance that Dr. Hartz discovers the deception. He stops the Nun who is exiting the train and forces her back on, where she confesses what she’s done or in this case, not done.

Dr. Hartz has one of the railway men detach the last cars on the train and then has it diverted to a branch line where soldiers await. Thinking they have gone past the border, Gilbert and Iris free Miss Froy from her hiding place. But when they discover they’ve been fooled, they to rally the other British onboard to their cause. They are all reluctant at first, but when a soldier boards the train and requests that they accompany him to the British consulate, they instead attack him and take his gun. Another soldier fires, wounding Charters in the hand, and a shootout begins.

A soldier (Charles Oliver) boards the train and offers to take the passengers to the British consulate.

Mr. Todhunter announces that he has a gun, which he is reluctant to use, so they take the gun from him. Turns out Caldicott is quite a good shot.

Caldicott takes aim with Mr. Todhunter's gun.

During the gunfight, Miss Froy reveals to Gilbert and Iris that she is in fact a British agent who must deliver a message to the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The message is encoded in the tune that the folk singer was singing that night at the inn. She asks Gilbert to memorize it in case she doesn’t make it out. He agrees and learns the song before helping her out the window. While she is running through the forest, a shot is fired in her direction and neither Gilbert or Iris is sure if she was hit or not.

Miss Froy confesses to Gilbert and Iris that she is, in fact, a spy.

Todhunter thinks he’ll be okay if he surrenders and he leaves the train waving a white handkerchief. One of the soldiers with Dr. Hartz shoots him dead. Down to only one bullet, Gilbert and Caldicott then commandeer the locomotive with an empty gun. While the engineers get the train going, both are shot dead by soldiers. Gilbert then takes over the controls and the group races for the border. But the soldier who was knocked out regains consciousness and control of his gun. When the train stops at a switch he holds everyone at bay but the fake nun manages to slip out and throws the switch despite being shot by their pursuers. She gets shot, but only in the leg as she scrambles back aboard the engine. The other passengers manage to subdue the soldier and the group escapes across the border.

Dr. Hartz and his men shoot at the train, which still manages to get away.

Safely back in London, Charters and Caldicott discover the Test Match has been abandoned due to flooding. Iris who has been waiting for her fiancé suddenly jumps into a cab with Gilbert to avoid him. Gilbert kisses her and instructs the cab to take them to Whitehall. By the time they arrive at the Foreign Office, Gilbert and Iris are engaged, but when they are allowed to see the Minister, Gilbert is suddenly unable to remember the vital tune.

Just then they hear the melody being played on the piano and in the office are reunited with Miss Froy.

Like most films based on novels, The Lady Vanishes is not a strict retelling of the story. For example, Gilbert is called Max Hare in the book and is not a traveler documenting European folk dancing, but an engineer building a dam. Iris isn’t hit by a flower pot, but rather suffers from sunstroke. Also, the train never stops in the novel and there is no final shootout either. And finally, the characters of Charters and Caldicott were created for the film and do not appear in the novel.

The film is somewhat typical Hitchcock, putting his characters in a dangerous situation and with humor and cunning they manage to get free. You see it again in Foreign Correspondent (1940), his second film for Selznick, and again in Torn Curtain (1966). The fight onboard the train with Doppo reminded me of a similar one in Torn Curtain wherein Paul Newman’s character, Professor Michael Armstrong, and a farmer’s wife must subdue a Soviet agent who refuses to die until they hold his head in a gas oven.

Also typical is the thrusting together of a man and woman, who fight each other, but come together for the better good. The 39 Steps (1935) in which Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll must overcome their own distrust to thwart the conspiracy is one example, but we see it again in Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur (1942), Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959) to name a few. This makes for a happy ending, as the two seem to have overcome their differences and are on the road to happy-ever-after with each other.

While Hitchcock never shies away from being politically relevant, this one can be seen as a little more overt. With the real world moving ever closer to war, the film is a bit of a microcosm as it relates to the British, which was its presumed audience. When their little world of Cricket Test Matches, books on folk dancing and love affairs is threatened by an authoritative government, the British tourists must turn to each other for survival. The only one that decides to surrender, lawyer Todhunter who uses a white flag, is shot dead as soon as he steps off the train. While the war was still a year away, Hitchcock can be seen to be saying the only way to survive is to fight back.

Despite the seriousness of the story, there is still a lot of humor in the film, much of it provided by the dialogue. Charters and Caldicott are basically comic relief for most of the film, as they dissect the most mundane aspects of Cricket throughout. Add to that the fairly witty dialogue spoken throughout and you have a dark subject handled with a light touch, something else Hitchcock was able to do effectively throughout his career.

Like all of his films, Hitchcock seems to get the best from his actors, in this case Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who deliver their best early performances on film here. Both actors would go on to long careers on film and stage. Lockwood for a time was the most popular British actress of her day and commanded $112,000 a year in a contract she would sign in the 1952, making her the highest paid actress in British films. Though she would ply her talents in the U.S., she would return to England before World War II and would later find some success on stage in Noël Coward's Private Lives in 1949 and as Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie's play in 1949, 1950 and 1957 (the last with her daughter Julia Lockwood as Wendy). She would also appear in the films Night Train to Munich (1940), The Man in Grey (1943), The Wicked Lady (1945) and The Stars Look Down (1940), the latter with Redgrave.

Redgrave would go onto a very successful career, appearing in such films as Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy; The Browning Version (1951); The Importance of Being Earnest (1952); Mr. Arkadin (1955); The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); Alice in Wonderland (1966), a BBC production featuring music by Ravi Shankar; Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969); and The Go-Between (1971). In addition to appearing on stage and on TV, Redgrave is also the father of actresses Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave and actor Corin Redgrave.

On a side note, while the characters of Charters and Caldicott were written for the film, they proved to be so popular that they would appear in other films, most notably Night Train to Munich; Millions Like Us (1943); Crook’s Tour (1941), which grew out of a BBC radio series; and in Secret Mission 609 (1942). The two actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford would also appear as similar characters in such films as The Next of Kin (1942) as Careless talkers on train; Dead of Night (1945) as Parratt and Potter; A Girl in a Million (1946) as Prendergast and Fotheringham; Quartet (1948) as Garnet and Leslie; It’s Not Cricket (1949) as Bright and Early; Passport to Pimlico (1949) as Gregg and Straker; Stop Press Girl (1949) as The Mechanical Types; and Helter Skelter (1949). There was even a TV Series in 1985 that ran for 6 episodes, starring Michael Aldridge as Caldicott and Robin Bailey as Charters.

So popular were Charters and Caldicott that they would appear in other movies.

The Lady Vanishes was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming the most successful British film to date and named the Best Picture 1938 by the New York Times. Hitchcock would receive his only honor for directing when he won that years’ New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.

Hitchcock once again showed himself to be one of the great directors, mixing wit and intrigue and producing a very entertaining thriller. His films are usually so good that it doesn’t matter where you start when starting to watch his oeuvre. If you have never seen his The Lady Vanishes, then I would highly recommend you see it as soon as possible. There is no reason to wait.