Galapagos Affair: 1930s Murder Mystery

DATELINE:  Add a Fake Baroness to a Gilligan’s Island Scenario

 Galapagos Affair

Dora & Dr. Ritter, suspects or victims?

When the film uses the tag: “Darwin meets Hitchcock…,” we are totally hooked instantly. Yes, this is a true 1930s murder mystery that would shock Hercule Poirot and confound Sherlock Holmes.

In 1929, Floreanana, Galapagos, was an uninhabited island where B. Traven, Greta Garbo, and J.D. Salinger would have been happy. A German doctor, Friedrich Ritter and his lover Dore Strauch settled there 60 miles from another human being. This is what Herman Melville called the Enchanted Islands, but where ancient tortoises put a curse on visitors.

Within a few years the island was colonized by a middle-class German family named Wittner—and then a colorful woman who called herself a Baroness Eloise von Wagner with her “two husbands.” She claimed imperiously that she planned to build a hotel on the island for American millionaires—which did not go over well with the other four adult residents. No one owned any of it, but the territorial governor gave the Baroness miles of prime land for her project.

When these people took up life in the Edenic locale, they went slightly mad (or likely were already). This documentary uses extraordinary footage—and the brilliant voice-over of Cate Blanchett—to show how the alleged Baroness chose to become queen of her domain, to the point of killing anyone who trespassed on her personal paradise.

She even made a ridiculous movie on location in 1934, which gives this documentary some wildly odd footage of all involved.

With the unwieldy title of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, you have a startling and hypnotic documentary about lunacy in the world that Charles Darwin found a pristine lab of genetic development.

Newspaper headlines and docu-footage make this film a marvel of truth and sensational history. Who killed whom?  Everyone has a theory, but the Baroness and one husband disappeared, another husband met a foul end, and Dr. Ritter seems to have been poisoned.

Within a few years the original group was cut down by 2/3 by suspicious deaths. Who done it?  We defy you to figure it out from this marvelous documentary.

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What Becomes Legendary Cary Grant

DATELINE:  Transforming Archie Leach

Cary

With permission and cooperation of his daughter Jennifer, we discover Cary Grant took many home movies of his life off-screen—and wrote an autobiography never published.

These are the basis for an extraordinary documentary called Becoming Cary Grant. Indeed, Archie Leach became movie star Cary in a titanic demonstration of willpower. To go from a poor, abandoned child in Bristol, England, to the world’s epitome of a debonair, charming superstar was not an accident of fate.

Yet, fate played a hideous joke on Cary. At age 11, his mother simply disappeared—and his father went off to marry another woman and raise a new family. Archie Leach was sent to a grandparent. Lonely and confused, he discovered vaudeville where people were happy, had fun, cared and performed on stage. He joined instantly, settling in New York at age 18 to become a dashing stage actor.

Later he went to Hollywood where a test led to something akin to instant stardom. Around that time he learned his mother had spent 20 years in an English lunatic asylum. He rescued her from that fate—and became Cary Grant almost simultaneously.

Interestingly, he chose his darker film roles as autobiographical commentary. He let directors like Hitchcock, George Cukor, and Henry Hawks, transform him into something remarkable: a man for all seasons. He could play cold-hearted cads or epicene nerds with equal likeability.

Jonathan Pryce reads Cary’s own words over many film clips that have new insight to his real issues. Grant was neither English, nor American, in his tone. He appealed to both men and women, and he was always well-mannered and self-deprecating. No wonder he remains the camera’s favorite leading man.

Whatever Cary’s personal troubles, he worked hard at becoming a better person and happier in his personal work and life. The documentary exudes with his hypnotic personality, his magnetic appeal. No matter what problems beset him, he gave the world something special.

 

 

Nikola Tesla: More than Meets the Eye

DATELINE:  Under Appreciated Genius

Tesla & sparks

PBS produced a documentary on the mysterious genius born in 1856 whose inventions seem to include Star Wars Defense Initiative and particle beam death rays.

Its title is Tesla: Master of Lightning, and he used electrical currents to win a war with Edison, light up a World’s Fair, and made himself glow in the dark.

We may never know the whole story as Tesla’s notebooks disappeared when he died in 1943. Were they stolen by Nazi spies? Russians? The FBI?

A recent little book by Ralph T. O’Neal III came to our attention in which Tesla’s stolen secrets are the McGuffin of an extra-governmental conspiracy in something called Shadow War: MJ-12 Versus the Vatican.

MJ12kindlecover

The final segment of the PBS film seems to hint at futuristic, Jules Verne technology created by Nikola Tesla.

The man came out of nowhere, Croatia in 1884, and immediately became enemies with Thomas Edison, J. Pierpoint Morgan, and Guillermo Marconi. That’s quite a climb to infamy when a poor immigrant hobnobs with the greats of the 19th century a few years after arriving in New York.

Trump would not have let Tesla into the country if he tried to enter today.

The documentary and the life of Tesla almost seems like science fiction—but it is tragedy and enigma wrapped in a bit of showmanship by the great inventor.

Most today know the name Tesla as a progressive car. He was much more than that, and you may owe it to yourself to learn about a man who eschewed fortune and lost his fame.

Johnny Cash: Up Close with His Manager

DATELINE:  Country Star Revealed

man in black  Director Holiff with Johnny Cash

In the first ten minutes of this documentary, with its realistic reenactments, you might think you are watching some outrageous fiction. But, it’s all true. You are about to enter the world of My Father and The Man in Black.

Saul Holiff was Johnny’s manager for nearly 15 years, through some of the worst moments of his addictions, black-outs, and temperamental snits.

Holiff alienated many people with his brash character, but he loved being in show biz, even on the outskirts. His business ties to Cash, like all personal management ties, were tenuous—and inevitably broke.

Yet, his son Jonathan never knew his father. He left home as soon as he could at age 18—and they almost never spoke. When his father committed suicide in 2005, he left no note.

But Jonathan’s mother said he left something else: boxes of audio diaries of his relationships with Cash and his sons. And herein lies a tale both shocking and fascinating.

Writing, directing, and producing this “tribute” to his misunderstood father seems an extraordinary feat by Holiff.

Even as a child, he often thought Cash was his father because every sentence spoken in front of him always contained father and Johnny Cash. They were inseparable. Saul introduced June to Johnny.

Cash wanted to overcome his drug-addled past and prison persona for being born-again. He became as addicted to Jesus as he was to pills.  He even made a religious film in the Holy Land, but it was cruel to ask his long-time manager, Jewish atheist Saul to play Caiaphas in one scene.

The break between them was not long after.

Using careful crafted re-enactments and voice imitators to read Johnny’s letters to Saul, this documentary seems to have melted into oblivion when it demands to be seen. Don’t miss it.

History Channel Loses It Again with Amelia Earhart

DATELINE:  Much Interesting Evidence Remains

boyish Earhart

The hue and cry has begun that the History Channel’s latest documentary is a fraud. Alas, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence has much to recommend it—and one glaring issue.

A linchpin photo, said to be of Earhart and Fred Noonan, captured by the Japanese, may be of the two pilots in an earlier time, according to researchers. Not fake, but misleading.

History Channel is vacillating, of course.

They have produced another of those series in the Bob Baer mode, with Shawn Henry, a flak from the FBI who jumps to conclusions faster than you can say “Russian connection.”

Among the best features of the one-episode documentary are the collection of film clips of Earhart, charming and charismatic. Even 80 years after her death, you can see why she remains fascinating. And, we are spared an endless series of investigations over hours.

Yet, the investigation is quick to blame conspiracy, rather than negligence and incompetence of the United States forces. She sent the number 281 as a radio message, which the US search teams presumed meant miles, not latitudes.

Interviews with witnesses, including one 90-year old woman who clarifies the mistaken story of decades that she saw Earhart executed, set the record straight.

However in shows like this, one incorrect fact can doom the quality. And, strange details, like missing bones once thought to be hers, add to the mystery.

Shawn Henry, host and investigator, is quick to jump on the most sensational conclusion when the moderate one strengthens his case.

Should you skip it as another unreliable History Channel dubious documentary? Certainly not. We hung on its intriguing evidence.

El Escape de Hitler in Any Language

DATELINE:  Old Friend Dullest

dullest

This 2011 film from Argentina is only available for streaming video and has subtitles. That’s enough to send most viewers scurrying for the remote. An Argentine film uses the Spanish title: El Escape de Hitler.

However, don’t be hasty. This little film may be a lost gem in the ‘Where’s Adolph?’ sweepstakes.

The recent Bob Baer series on History channel took many ideas from this 87-minute documentary—and left out some of the most intriguing theories.

Some rather suspenseful direction from Matias Gueilburt helps to hold your interest with effective historical movie clips, and host Carlos de Napoli is hilariously mysterious in his demeanor as he follows the trail from Nuremberg and Austrian locations to the Argentine border of Bariloche where Hitler and his bride seemingly ended up.

If the area in Argentina didn’t already have a Bavarian appeal, the local German residents went all out to make it homey. They even planted trees imported from Germany to make the local lake look even more like the Fatherland.

Our old friend from the CIA, Allen Dulles, shows up here as the man who orchestrated a deal with Hitler to have him disappear in exchange for all those rocket scientists who later put an American on the Moon. This sort of discounts all those Ancient Alien types who think Hitler jumped instead into a time machine called The Bell and took off for parts in the distant future.

So, with American cover, the Nazi murdering monster went missing while everyone looked the other way. Flown out of his bunker well before the Soviets came by, he jumped onto a U-boat and disembarked in Argentina, traveling across the country to the Andes.

If true, Hitler and his wife lived out their golden years in a remote luxury mansion with all the accoutrements of Alpine living, including their round-the-clock security and nearby airplane for a fast getaway.

It’s fascinating, if nothing else.

No Joke: The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

DATELINE:  Fascinating True Story

7 dwarves

Though it sounds like a sick joke, the fate of the vaudeville Orvitz family came down to the misfortune and good fortune of being dwarves and Jews. A documentary called The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz is harrowing and inspiring.

Brothers and sisters, the seven Orvitzes entertained Europe in the 1930s with song, dance, patter, and capitalizing on their own physical situation. They were tiny people who joined many others of the era by entering show biz as the best way to make a living.

They exploited themselves, and ran from the terror of the Nazis in Europe.  They ignored the horror stories, but finally the Nazis came to capture them in Transylvania and transport them in 1944 to the death camp at Auschwitz.

Through pluck and luck, they came to the attention of an ironic savior, the unstable Dr. Joseph Mengele. One of the guards told the doctor that he had found more specimens for the infamous ‘Mengele Zoo’, as it was called.

Yet, it meant that they would live as experiment specimens for the deranged medical practices of Mengele. However, he was also intrigued by their ability to entertain. It was that which kept them alive while others with deformity were slaughtered.

The tale is told by actor Warwick Davis, a small person himself, with an interest in the history of show business dwarves. He made a name for himself in movies, playing Ewoks and whatnot.

The horror of the tale is etched on his face as he travels the route suffered by the seven Orvitz dwarves. They were tortured by odd experiments, but managed to survive. Mengele allowed them to live to perform for him.

The film is unique in its perspective and deserves to be seen and will never be forgotten.

Who Was Heath Ledger?

DATELINE:  No Answers in I am Heath Ledger

 heath

Derik Murray has put together a series of “I am..” documentaries. They are intimate, unflinching, and hypnotic films about subjects with charisma and cult interest. Something went wrong along the way on this one called I am Heath Ledger.

So it is not surprising to find Heath Ledger being given the mythic figure treatment. He is no James Dean because he was filled with joie d’vivre and was a man with a cause and a mission.

Ledger said openly that he was on a mission to push his artistic feelings to the limit. He surrounded himself with his Australian friends from boyhood as an entourage for the most part, but there were no naysayers in the bunch. There was also no one to help him discipline himself. He was brilliant, a chess prodigy and potential major film director.

Going without sleep and pushing his physical limits, Heath Ledger was a whirling dervish of inspired talents. He was into music and film in particular, but showed unlimited artistic abilities. He took endless videos of himself, almost each snippet a movie in miniature. He was observing and teaching himself what reactions worked in a role.

He managed to improve with each role, but seemingly his happy demeanor hinted at a less satisfying deeper sense. His marriage fell apart, and he increasingly covered his beautiful body with tattoos. He used himself as a laboratory for life.

He spoke that he had limited time, like so many music and movie legends who went beyond before age 30. Was he prescient, or just a workaholic?

Heath left several stunning performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, but his colleagues do not line up to appear in this film tribute—only family and close friends are anguished and full of love.  Naomi Watts and Ang Lee speak about him, but the film turns on the achievements of his friends, rather than on Heath finally.

The spin of final repeated clips at the end of the documentary without words may be more telling as the film seems to spin away too.

 

 

Illuminating Lumet

DATELINE:  Basic Workhorse

Lumet

His documentary is standard, if not dull, with Sidney Lumet alone talking to the camera. No other interviews interrupt his self-analysis, though it is interspersed with dozens of clips from his many notable films.

As you might have guessed by the end of the film, Lumet never won a best director Oscar—not that it’s an omission of the prodigious output of his career.

Starting out as a child actor on Broadway (an arch-rival to Frankie Thomas), he tried Hollywood as a child star, but MGM dropped him soon enough. However, Lumet loved acting and being around creative people. He loved to work, and his father Baruch Lumet was a soap opera radio actor as well. It was a short jump to stay with theater as a director as Sidney grew up.

He started at the top in movies, directing the extraordinary all-star, movie called Twelve Angry Men with Henry Fonda about a claustrophobic jury. From there he worked steadily with great stars in less than commercial properties, from Katharine Hepburn to Brando, in their least successful box-office films of the era.

Each film he made was literate, thought-provoking, and from all genres. Few recall he directed Michael Jackson in The Wiz—and Richard Burton in Equus. Fonda again in Fail-Safe. He brought out bravura performances by Rod Steiger in Pawnbroker, and Paul Newman in the Verdict. He made diverse movies like The Hill (Sean Connery) and Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney). He made Dog Day Afternoon like a newsreel with Al Pacino and made a hilarious black comedy with gay themes called Deathtrap with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. All brilliant.

As each amazing movie is catalogued, Lumet dismisses his interest in morality, his love of New York, and his nearly Calvinistic religious fervor for work above all else.

Yet, we realized half-way into the documentary that we never truly loved any of his films. They won our respect, and caught our attention always. However, there was no overpowering sense of directoral style, which may not be bad. He knew how to handle a story and its stars.

If there is an ultimate response to him, we feel regret that he did not receive enough acclaim from us.

 

Mifune: Brando & Duke Combined

DATELINE:  Japan’s Superstar Not Named Godzilla

toshiro

 

It was said that Japan exported two mammoth stars in the 1950s.  One was Godzilla, and the other was Toshiro Mifune.

As John Wayne was the quintessential Western star with director John Ford, Mifune was the quintessential Samurai star for director Akira Kurosawa.

In the documentary called Mifune: The Last Samurai, with narration by Keanu Reeves, Mifune was the Japanese Wayne with a touch of Brando. What intensity and dedication to art!

From 1950 onward, Mifune gave performances that made art house audiences in the United States jump up and take notice. He was far more influential on American film directors who took plots from Roshomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, and other classics—and remade them, using the stylized direction and the singular performance of Toshiro.

 

However much someone might imitate Mifune, no actor actually had his natural angst and tough spirit. Try as they might, Clint and Yul had to avoid copying Mifune. No one could quite catch the look of a man with an arrow through his neck as Toshiro.

He was a hard drinker and hard worker and made over a dozen films with Kurosawa before they parted ways.

His lifestory gives an angle to Japanese life and films that Americans might not know about—and Steven Spielberg offers his insights (working together for the film 1941), as well as two sons of Mifune in recollections.

Toward the end of his life, Mifune went up against Charles Bronson (Red Sun) and Lee Marvin (Hell in the Pacific) as a film antagonist, but his classic films are singular achievements. Though he played mostly samurai warriors and ronin, he showed considerable range as an actor. This documentary gives you a sampler of his talent.

Golden State Origins

DATELINE:  Miners Balls

Miners ball

When you say, The Gold Rush, everyone thinks of Chaplin’s silent comedy, but in 2005 PBS put out one of its patented documentaries entitled The Gold Rush.

As with the American Experience TV series, you may have top-notch quality with the caster oil of political correctness. So, it is here. However, they avoid discussing the all-male miners’ balls and possible transgenderism.

What starts out as an exciting adventure in American history quickly devolves into genocide, misuse of women, exclusion of minorities, and lynch mobs.

Well, in 1849 in a matter of months, California became an American territory, discovered gold ready for anyone to find along river banks, and was 90% men under age 30. You don’t have to have lived in a college dorm to know what this means.

Only, think of it on a grand scale. Debauchery unlimited, booze, and gambling among the hard work and hard luck days.

It is an experiment in America for sure: the 49ers were the first truly multi-cultural group with a shocking attitude that America was the place for get-rich-quick schemes and a democratic competition.

You could see it would end nearly as abruptly as it started, but for a few years before it went sour with anti-immigrant laws and unruly lynch mobs, you had a great American adventure.

The documentary does all the production just right: use of dramatic readings, use of original photos, news clips, interspersed with re-enactors in accurate costume and setting.

Some matters are deeply troubling, like the genocide of Native American Californians and the expulsion of South American prospectors.