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VINCENTENNIAL: WITCHFINDER GENERAL and CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR Tonight

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WITCHFINDER GENERAL will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival in a 35mm print at 7:00pm tonight, Thursday, May 26th at Brown Hall on the campus of Washington University. Admission is free.

It’s likely that Vincent Price never delivered a better performance than the one he gave in WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), the fact-based story of infamous witchhunter Matthew Hopkins and the barbaric acts he practiced in mid-17th century England. Price completely jettisoned his usual campy theatrics in favor of an appropriately low-key, sinister, and menacing depiction of a purely evil man who hides behind a mask of religious allegiance. Price plays Hopkins as an unmerciful fiend with a genteel manner and an appetite for torture, especially burning. The movie is cruel in its violence but also intelligent and effective and Price is relatively restrained in a complex role as a man who whose mission is to achieve confessions and take the lives of those marked as Satan’s helpers. Price regarded his performance here as the finest of his horror movie career. Director Michael Reeves and Price famously battled on set over the actor’s approach to playing Hopkins, and Price eventually agreed that Reeves was a genius and his insistence that Price subdue his performance was the right one. Reeves was just 25 when he directed WITCHFINDER GENERAL, his fourth film, but was no stranger to working with major horror stars. He previously had helmed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) with Christopher Lee, THE SHE-BEAST (1966) with Barbara Steele, and THE SORCERERS (1967) with Boris Karloff. Price and Reeves were scheduled to re-team the following year for THE OBLONG BOX but Reeves was found dead of a barbiturate overdose in February of 1969 (some sources claim it was suicide). WITCHFINDER GENERAL is an extremely sadistic movie, but its details are based on fact. The Civil War in 17th century Britain was horrific and left people hungry and desperate. Accusing a neighbor of witchcraft had the instant benefit of claiming the property they left behind. Locals were eager to help Hopkins, even when he asks that the daughters of the men he imprisoned be brought to his bedchamber. The real-life Hopkins lived a long life and died of natural causes but the film gives him a bloody death, even though it’s unsatisfying to its young hero (played by Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy) who ends the film with the haunted refrain “You took him from me” When American International released this film in the U.S. in 1968 they changed the title to CONQUEROR WORM and tried to pass it off as one from their Edgar Allen Poe series by adding a few lines from the author’s abstract poem of that title. WITCHFINDER GENERAL is not only one of Vincent Price’s very best films but the black-hearted Mathew Hopkins is one of cinema’s most frightening villains.

CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival in a 35mm print at 9:15pm tonight Monday, May 23rd at Brown Hall on the campus of Washington University (this is rescheduled from the original date). Admission is free.

Many works of fiction have been said to be ahead of their time. In the world of motions pictures few are more prophetic than the 1950 comedy classic CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR. By that year, mind you, quiz shows were popular on radio and that young upstart television, but by the end of the decade these programs would inspire a national craze ( and a scandal later depicted in Robert Redford’s film QUIZ SHOW ). CAESAR foreshadows all this while showcasing some delightful performances by actors generally not known for big screen comedies. The plot centers on an unemployed genius Beauregard Bottomley played by one of Hollywood’s most celebrated leading men, Ronald Colman. He was best known then for roles in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, LOST HORIZON, and RANDOM HARVEST, but today he may be best known as the vocal inspiration for cereal pitch man ( er..bird ) Toucan Sam. Beauregard shares a modest LA bungalow with his sister Gwenn played by Barbara Britton ( who later co-starred in TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North ) who teaches piano and the film’s title character Caesar, a parrot with a taste for booze ( his exclamations, such as “Let’s get loaded!” and “How about a short one?” are provided Looney Tunes’ man of a thousand voices Mel Blanc ). One evening the Bottomleys view a few minutes of a game show on a TV in a store’s window display. It’s Masquerade for Money sponsored by My Lady Soap ( the soap that sanctifies ) and hosted by Happy Hogan ( Hmmm wonder if Stan Lee saw this? That name was given to Tony Stark’s driver/bodyguard in his Iron Man comic book stories a decade alter ) played by Art Linkletter who would soon have a huge TV hit with his transplanted radio show People Are Funny. Beauregard dismisses it until the unemployment office sends him to the My Lady Soap headquarters for a job interview with the company president Burnbridge Waters by Vincent Price. Price had been making films for twelve years, but this film shows a zany, comic style not yet seen on screen. When Waters concentrates he goes into a trance and almost becomes a wax figure. He’s arrogant, pompous, and dismissive especially with his squad of yes men ( which include Ed Wood regular Lyle Talbot, who played Lex Luthor in the serial ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN and Commissioner Gordon in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN, and John Hart who would replace Clayton Moore as TV’s Lone Ranger for one season). Leaving Waters’s office after losing out on the job and being insulted, Beauregard decides to go on the My Lady sponsored quiz show. There he easily answers the questions, but refuses the prize money. He wants to return on the next show and go double or nothing. Waters is delighted when this turns into a ratings ( and soap sales ) bonanza, but is horrified when his questions cannot stump Beauregard, who intends to keep earning money until he owns the company. A rattled Waters sends Hogan out to romance info from Gwenn and he hires intellectual femme fatale Flame O’Neill played by Celeste Holm ( the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma had won a supporting Oscar for GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT three years ago and was about to be seen in ALL ABOUT EVE ) to distract Bottomley. I don’t wish to reveal much more or I’ll spoil the film’s great humor and surprises. The main reason to see is the delightful performance of Mr. Price. His droll wit would come through in his later work, but here he’s a whirling dervish of mirth-an inspired comic villain. A few years later Price and Colman would spar again in Irwin Allen’s campy THE STORY OF MANKIND, but here in CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR the laughs are intentional., and very, very plentiful.

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