Friday, April 29, 2016

THE LOST CITY (1935)

It's serial time again, kids! This one starts with hunky scientist Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) trying to find the source of a slew of natural disasters (electrical storms, floods, etc.) around the world. He finds strange magnetic disorders coming from the middle of Africa and he and his pal Jerry (Eddie Fetherston) go off to investigate. In Africa, the natives who live in the village where the slave traders Butterfield and Andrews operate are attacked by giants and hauled off to the Magnetic Mountain where, in something called the Lost City (not a city so much as a small compound), they becomes subjects in the experiments of Dr. Manyus whose Expanding Ray turns the slaves into brain-addled giants. Manyus and his daughter Natcha (Claudia Dell) are being held by the evil Zolok (William 'Stage' Boyd) who wants to collect an army of giants and take over the world—I assume, as we never really get an explanation of how he plans to benefit from the ray. Zolok also plans to wrest control of Mayus's Freezing Ray and a formula that turns the black natives into white people (!!). The cast of characters includes another slave trader named Ben Ali; Queen Rama, ruler of the Spider Men (that is, men who sacrifice other men to their Spider God); Hugo (Sam Baker), the main giant; and the skimpily-clad muscle lad Appollyn (Jerry Frank) who spends the whole movie roaming the jungle at the bidding of Zolok but not really having much to do with the plot—though because Zolok can see Appollyn on a TV screen, a title card at the beginning of a chapter says, "While Zolok televisions frantically…"

This was apparently one of the more financially successful serials, and much of it is indeed fun. But there is a deadly imbalance in the narrative—the first four chapters have quite a lot going on, much of it in the fairly cool Lost City, but the middle chapters, set mostly in the jungle, bog down in routine and repetitious action as good guys keep getting captured by bad guys, escape, and get captured again. Richmond makes for a fairly solid hero; many viewers think Boyd makes a good, over-the-top villain, but I find him generally a little too low-energy until the final chapter—he spends most of the middle chapters sitting at his desk "televisioning" with Appollyn. And speaking of Appollyn, I looked forward to his appearances, not just because of his solid build and fabulous costume, but because as an actor, Jerry Frank seemed to be enjoying himself. Fetherston is also reliably good, though Dell seems out of her depth (I did get pleasure out of a scene in the last chapter in which she draws the word “cruel” out to five syllables).

Some highlights: the Tunnel of Flame; the Lion Pit;  the art deco city sets; George "Gabby" Hayes as Butterfield, who goes from bad to good to bad, etc.; the Enlarging Ray effect is effective; the best thing in the movie, and it happens almost once per chapter, is Sam Baker as the giant Hugo who puffs himself up, gets a horrible grimace on his face, lets out a dreadful scream, and grabs some victim by the neck—he really is pretty scary; and, of course, the delightful Appollyn. Some minuses: as noted above, most of the acting is only so-so; the fistfights are lackadaisical, as the men basically throw their arms at each other, clearly not making contact, like little kids play-fighting; chapter 6 is almost entirely recap material; Queen Rama is a character they introduced but then couldn’t think of much to do with. Of course, the casual racist attitudes about the natives will rankle viewers, but that is part and parcel of films of the era. Overall, despite the many weaknesses, one of the better serials. The black & white photo is of Richmond, Dell and Featherston; the tinted still features Frank (in his Tarzan-like togs) to the left of Boyd.  [DVD]

Thursday, April 28, 2016

EVERYBODY SING (1938)

Judy Garland, just months before THE WIZARD OF OZ, stars in this annoying and tedious waste of good talent and a potentially interesting plot. The film revolves around the eccentric Bellaire family; the father (Reginald Owen) is a playwright, formerly rich but now down on his luck, and the mother (Billie Burke) is an actress. They have two daughters (Lynne Carver and Judy Garland), a maid (legendary Ziegfeld Follies perfomer Fanny Brice), and a cook (Allan Jones) who sings nights at a café. Also hanging around is Reginald Gardiner, Burke’s protégé and possibly her lover, though since this is an MGM family movie, that avenue is not explored. Garland has just been expelled from an arts school for "updating" Mendelssohn into swing mode, and the plot, once it kicks in and deadens any audience interest, involves Garland trying to help her struggling family by becoming a pop singer. The café owner puts up money for a musical show starring Jones, and he gives Garland a part, with Brice and Gardiner helping out. There is one cute number, "Down on Melody Farm," and Brice does one of her Baby Snooks bits which helped make her famous. Garland does two swing songs and an ill-advised blackface number. Owen and Burke, both of whom are usually favorites of mine, seem shrill and arificical, like they were both fed uppers before their scenes. Monty Woolley has a small role early on as a producer. The template for this is screwball comedy, what with the once-rich family, the assorted odd characters, and the romance—Carver is in love with Jones—but it just doesn't come together. I will say that Garland, Jones and Gardiner are entertaining but they're not quite enough reason to watch this half-baked musical. Pictured is the cast with Burke, Jones and Garland in the middle. [TCM]

Monday, April 25, 2016

A LETTER FOR EVIE (1946)

At a company that manufactures shirts for the military during WWII, the female employees, desperate because all the good men are at war, stuff love letters in the pockets of the shirts, particularly the shirts with big neck sizes, hoping to start a correspondence with a hunky solider. Secretary Marsha Hunt, dating her milquetoast boss (Norman Lloyd), is encouraged by her friends to write such a letter, so she does, and it winds up in the pocket of a shirt meant for big-necked, hunky and handsome John Carroll, a notorious womanizer ("Wolf" is his nickname) who tosses her letter away without reading it. But Carroll's friend (Hume Cronyn), a pint-sized mild-mannered fellow, reads the letter and decides to write back, sending a photo of Carroll in a lumberjack outfit to represent himself. What could go wrong? Well, this being a light-hearted version of Cyrano de Bergerac, things do go wrong, but in a comic fashion. When his unit gets stationed in New York, Cronyn goes to visit Hunt, falls for her, and pretends to be Carroll's buddy—which, of course, he is. Eventually Carroll gets wise to the situation and visits Hunt's apartment, sweeping her off her feet and pissing off poor Cronyn who proceeds to get drunk and disorderly before a wrap-up that finds Hunt eventually succumbing to Cronyn's charms (such as they are).

This is light-hearted war-romance fun for most of its running time, carried mostly by the male leads. Carroll (pictured with Hunt) is an underrated B-lead and he's very good here, giving his male chauvinist goon role enough charm so that we genuinely aren't sure whether we want him or Cronyn to win the girl. Cronyn is good too, though his character acts in rather unlikable ways in the last third of the film, when he does a very amusing drunk scene. Many film buffs like Hunt, and she's OK here, but rather run-of-the-mill; I found Pamela Britton, who plays her roomie, to be more interesting. It’s fun to see Lloyd in a non-menacing role at this point in his career when he was probably best known as the villain in Hitchcock's SABOTEUR. Spring Byington has a small role as Cronyn's mother. There are two MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS references (to the Trolley Song and the little ditty that Margaret O’Brien sings that begins, "I was drunk last night, dear mother…") but I don't know why; I guess just an MGM in-joke. [TCM]

Thursday, April 21, 2016

REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR (1942)

It's November, 1941 in the Philippines where, even as Japanese ambassadors claim to be pressing for peace in the region, spies are sending messages about a coming attack on Pearl Harbor. On an American army base in Manila, we meet Bruce Gordon (Alan Curtis), a young and handsome soldier; Lucky Smith (Don Barry), a cocky, rowdy rule-breaker; and their chubby buddy 'Portly' Porter. We're also introduced to Portly's sister Marcia (Fay McKenzie), and when a local businessman named Littlefield (whom we have seen as one of the spies) bothers her at a bar, Lucky starts a fight that demolishes the place. He is disciplined and the three are sent on a mission to find the source of a mysterious radio transmission—musical notes that are coded Japanese messages. Restless Lucky splits to get a beer and while he's gone, the other two get ambushed by the spies and Portly gets killed. Lucky, imprisoned and facing a court-martial, escapes and, when he trips across a whole nest of spies who are smuggling oil, weapons and supplies for a coming Japanese invasion, tries to redeem himself by smashing the ring.

The title of this film is a little misleading. I suspect it was intended as a routine B-spy thriller in an exotic setting—and it even had a bit of a GUNGA DIN vibe starting when it seemed like the three rowdy buddies would be going off on an adventure—but when Pearl Harbor happened, it must have been retrofitted to be sold as the first Hollywood film with ties to the bombing. It's not really about Pearl Harbor, though we do see a minute or so of Pearl Harbor newsreel footage late in the film. Our heroes, needless to say, don't break the spy ring until December 7th when it's too late. But the final battle, between a small group of Americans and a larger group of invading Japanese, is rousing enough, and Lucky does indeed sacrifice himself to save the others. I wasn't crazy about the colorless Barry who had a long career in B-westerns, but I liked Alan Curtis (pictured to the left of Barry) as the straight arrow, and Sig Ruman is fun as a Nazi posing as a Dutchman (!). As a wartime spy film, this is passable, but don't expect any real Pearl Harbor content. [Paramount Vault on YouTube]

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

MIDNIGHT LIMITED (1940)

On car #1 of the Midnight Limited from Albany to Montreal, a man who is traveling with $75,000 worth of diamonds is robbed in the dark, and when the woman in the compartment next door (Marjorie Reynolds) tries to stop the shadowy thief, he steals some important papers of hers. The crook apparently manages to get off the train, though no one actually sees him leave. The investigating detective (John King) has his suspicions about the baggage handler (Monty Collins), but he can't prove anything. A few days later, a man carrying $60,000 in cash is robbed in the same way, and this time King's partner is killed in the process, so King enlists Reynolds' aid—she's the only person who's actually seen the thief, though only briefly and in the dark. King discovers that the two previous victims had stayed at the Ritz Plaza hotel and both had made travel arrangements through the same clerk, so they lay a trap with King staying at the hotel and posing as someone traveling with a lot of dough. Will the trap work? And more importantly, will King and Reynolds realize they should be falling in love?

This is a remarkably tedious B-movie during which I fell asleep twice (and it's only an hour long); I returned to it only because I like mysteries set on trains. This is weak in almost every element: dialogue, characterization, acting, and sets. I want to cut poor John King some slack, but when the lead actor is weak, it's difficult for a film to overcome that flaw. King comes off like a very enthusiastic amateur rushing through his lines so he can get to the next scene, so to criticize him feels a bit like kicking a puppy. He eventually found a niche in Hollywood playing a character named Dusty King in the "Range Busters" series of B-Westerns. Many critics like Reynolds here, but though she is more competent, she's awfully bland.  George Cleveland should give a slam-dunk performance as a comic-relief eccentric professor who travels on the Midnight Limited—and is part of the key to the solution—but even he can't bring the film to life. The plot point involving the hotel clerk is as close to interesting as the movie ever gets, unless you count the weird moment when King sits down at a piano in an Italian diner and sings to Reynolds—the less said about that, the better. [Streaming]

Friday, April 15, 2016

THE BLUE BIRD (1940)

Mytyl (Shirley Temple) and her little brother Tyltyl (Johnny Russell) live in a small village home with their mother and woodcutter father, and some pets—a cat, a dog, and a bird. Though not perhaps poor, they have to live simply and Temple is unhappy with her lot in life and ungrateful to her parents for providing what they do have. On Christmas Eve night, the two children wake up to a old lady pounding on their door; she is the fairy Berylune who sets them on a search for the Blue Bird of Happiness. A personification of Light (Helen Ericson) leads them into the past (a graveyard), the present (the well-appointed home of Mr. and Mrs. Luxury), and the future (a heavenly land of children waiting their turn to be born) to find happiness. Mytyl's cat and dog also become human and join them on their journey, with the sneaky cat (Gale Sondergaard) trying to upset their plans and the faithful dog (Eddie Collins) providing comic relief. Ultimately, restless Mytyl gets the message that happiness can be found in your own backyard.

Although MGM's THE WIZARD OF OZ was not a huge hit upon its first release in 1939, it did get a fair amount of attention, and this movie was Fox's attempt at a brightly-colored children's fantasy extravaganza. Apparently, legendary reports that Shirley Temple was considered for the part of Dorothy in OZ are wrong, but this still feels like a bone thrown to Temple for missing out on that gem of a role. Unfortunately, what this movie shows is how hard it is to do fantasy right. Where OZ is funny, sad, whimsical, magical, and just delightful, THE BLUE BIRD is heavy-handed and gloomy, though not without its moments of nearly successful whimsy. Based on a famous symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, it wears its allegorical elements much more obviously than OZ does. The physical production isn't quite up to OZ's level either, but some of the sets are effective (the forest fire, the waiting room in the sky for unborn children), and the scene where Temple's dead grandparents wake up from their eternal sleep because a loved one is thinking of them is touching. Temple is fine; the slinky Sondergaard is fun; I enjoyed Nigel Bruce and Laura Hope Crews as the Luxurys; I was less excited by Eddie Collins as the dog—his vaudeville roots show a bit too much. Unlike OZ, this is not a musical, but there are two more similarities to OZ: it films opens in black & white, and the final lesson seems to be, there's no place like home. In general, a missed opportunity to create another beloved fantasy, though the material may well stymie any attempts (the 70s remake with Elizabeth Taylor was so bad, I never finished watching it). [FXM]

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN (1936)

Ann Sothern is a gold-digging model who isn't having much luck finding a rich husband; she's casually dating a baron (Erik Rhodes), but though pleasant, he's not really very romantic. She also doesn't think much of the male models she sometimes works with—"Million dollar profiles and dollar & a quarter brains," she says. One day while on assignment on a yacht being rented out by Eric Blore, she mistakes Gene Raymond (a blond guy with, indeed, a nice profile) for a model, but he's actually the millionaire owner of the yacht and Blore is his valet. Despite being bad-mouthed by Sothern, Raymond falls for her and keeps up the subterfuge of being a model, going so far as to have Blore front a fake ad agency so he can hire Sothern to model with him. Soon, in spite of herself, Sothern starts liking Raymond, and the second half of the movie has a screwball feel to it. In a very amusing and fairly sexy scene, Raymond admits to a fear that he'll go bald, so she puts mange cure in his hair, then has to shampoo it out (pictured at left). This brings her conflicts to the forefront and she gets a little spooked. In the end, Raymond pretends he's tried to kill himself to get her once and for all.

That fake suicide plot is a little creepy, especially when he smears ketchup on his head to simulate a gunshot wound. Even creepier, she figures out what's going on when she tastes his blood. But this is generally a nice little romantic comedy, which might be said to be a forerunner of the full-fledged screwball comedy genre. Both Sothern and Raymond are fine, and both characters act in equally reprehensible ways—she's a mass of prejudices and he's a conniving trickster—so they really deserve each other. Raymond even gets to sing a song, "Will You?" which he wrote. The supporting cast comes right out of an Astaire/Rogers movie: Helen Brodrick is dry fun as Sothern's sister, Erik Rhodes does his exotic but stuffily formal playboy bit very nicely. But much of this winds up being Eric Blore's show—I think this is the biggest role I've seen him play and he makes the most of it. I also got a big kick out of a trick cigarette box of Raymond's that shoots a cigarette out right between his lips. Minor fun, and for Blore fans, a must. [TCM]

Monday, April 11, 2016

THE ATOMIC CITY (1952)

Dr. Frank Addison (Gene Barry) is a nuclear physicist who lives with his family at Los Alamos, which even after the war is a high security community. His wife Martha (Lydia Clarke) is concerned that their young son Tommy (Lee Aaker) uses the phrase, "If I grow up…" instead of "When I grow up…" and is frustrated about living at Los Alamos. One day during a school field trip in nearby Santa Fe, Tommy vanishes. The frantic teacher contacts Frank who tells her that he picked the boy up and forgot to tell her, but actually Tommy's been kidnapped by someone who wants Frank to deliver atom bomb secrets in exchange for their boy. Even though he's been told not to tell authorities, their friend Russ (Michael Moore) gets suspicious and soon the FBI snags Frank who was about to sneak some useless, outdated information out to the kidnappers. The agent in charge (Milburn Stone) agrees to the plan; the drop is made and the man who picks up the papers is followed, but it turns out he's just a patsy, and the real crooks, who are holding Tommy in an abandoned cliff dwelling, soon figure out that the info is no good. The FBI catch the bad guys' trail, but will they get there in time to save Tommy?

The title would seem to promise science fiction, or a film noir in the style of KISS ME DEADLY, but this is just an average crime melodrama with the unusual setting of Los Alamos and the hills of Santa Fe as background. As such, though, it works fairly well, building slowly to a tense finale which makes good use of the Puye Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico. The earlier scene of the stakeout as they follow the pick-up man is also well done. Gene Barry, whom I mostly know from the 60s detective show Burke's Law, is a little goofy looking and doesn't seem fully committed to his role, but everyone else is fine, especially 9-year-old Lee Aaker who would find more fame as Rusty on the 1950s Rin Tin Tin TV show. I often see Milburn Stone in comic relief parts but he's fine as the FBI man, and an actor named Michael Moore—not the current-day documentary director—gives good support at the family friend. This isn't exactly a cold-war propaganda piece—the atomic plans and the Commie crooks are mostly McGuffins here—but as a small-scale 50s crime movie, it's worth your time. Pictured above from left: Moore, Clarke and Barry. [DVD]

Thursday, April 07, 2016

SWANEE RIVER (1939)

In mid-1800s Pittsburgh, the Foster family's fortunes take a nosedive and Stephen, the dreaming layabout son, is pressured to take a clerical job in Cincinnati when what he really wants to do is write songs based on the folk songs that he hears black dockworkers sing while they work—"music from the heart of a simple people," he says. He's sweet on Jane but gets easily distracted by his musical daydreaming. Stephen manages to sell a song, "Oh! Susanna," to Ed Christy, head of a famous minstrel group, and the song becomes a hit, but Christy takes all the credit so a discouraged Stephen takes the Cincinnati job. Later, after the two men engage in a brawl, Christy offers Stephen a regular job (with full credit) writing for his group. Soon, the hits are coming ("Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home") and Stephen's future is bright enough that he can marry Jane. Unfortunately, Stephen develops a drinking problem that eventually leads to the breakup of his marriage. At the outbreak of the Civil War, his songs fall out of favor in the North because they're seen as glorifying the South, and he winds up living as a Bowery bum. Jane visits him just as Christy is about to debut his new song "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)"; the audience is uneasy about hearing yet another song of the South, but news comes during the concert that Stephen has died from an accidental fall, and the song is a hit.

I found the older Foster biopic (HARMONY LANE) to be fairly drab and depressing, and lacking in music. This film is in color, has a more charismatic lead actor (Don Ameche), and several musical performances, mostly by Al Jolson (in blackface) as Christy. But it's still on the drab side. Both films are highly fictionalized, which is to be expected with Hollywood biographies, but this one contains a deliberate falsehood that works against the sentiment the film works up for Foster. His last song wasn't "Swanee River"—that was published almost fifteen years before his death—it was "Beautiful Dreamer," a lovely song which the movie uses frequently as background score but which is never actually sung. The climax would have been much more effective had it been "Dreamer" performed for the first time moments after Foster died. Ameche and Andrea Leeds are OK as Foster and his wife, but both characters are underwritten to the point that she has no detectable personality and he is presented only as a lackadaisical dreamer or an aimless drunkard. The genesis of Foster's songs is usually presented in the awkward Hollywood way: Jane's reminiscence of being "down on the river…long ago" triggers "Swanee River"; the death of a black servant inspires Foster to write "Old Black Joe"; and of course "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" is written about Jane. Jolson's performances are energetic, though his blackface will be a distraction to modern audiences. I enjoyed Felix Bressart playing a music teacher and lifelong friend of the Fosters. The DVD print is colorful if a little on the dark side. [DVD]

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

TWO TICKETS TO BROADWAY (1951)

Hannah, Joyce and Foxy are three showgirls who were left stranded when a showboat revue shut down and are taking a bus back to New York to scold their well-meaning but bumbling agent, Lew Conway. When the bus stops in the small town of Pelican Falls, they witness the townsfolk giving a huge sendoff to young Nancy Peterson who is heading off to make a career on Broadway. The four gals bond and in Manhattan, Nancy also bonds with Dan Carter, a singer who is frustrated with his career; coincidentally, he's also a client of Lew Conway's. Conway has a plan, however: through some connivery, he tries to get Dan and the girls a job on Bob Crosby's TV show. The rest of the film covers the various false starts and shenanigans involved in getting the plan off the ground. This is a bright and colorful musical which gets off to a good start concentrating on Nancy (Janet Leigh) and the chorus girls (Gloria DeHaven, Ann Miller and Barbara Lawrence). And even the addition of the agent works, because he's Eddie Bracken, always a welcome comic addition to a movie. But Dan Carter is the movie’s downfall, played as he is by singer Tony Martin. Martin undeniably has a good voice (almost operatic when he sings a pop song adaptation of "O Solo Mio") but he is not an actor (see LET'S BE HAPPY for more evidence) and he doesn't even seem to be trying to have any chemistry with Leigh. There are some nice production numbers, including a boarding-house rendition of the Rodgers & Hart standard "I'll Take Manhattan" and a cute number called "Let's Make Comparisons" in which Bob Crosby compares himself to his superstar brother Bing. The legendary vaudeville team of Smith and Dale appear as delicatessen owners who play a part in the scheme, but they're given a little too much screen time for my taste. And Ann Miller doesn't get to do nearly enough dancing. The real problem is that this is an RKO musical trying to be an MGM musical. It starts well but by the end you'll be weary. [Warner Archive streaming]