Friday, August 29, 2014

AGGIE APPLEBY, MAKER OF MEN (1933)

This overlooked gem is a cute pre-Code romantic comedy with some clever writing and good performances, and I hope TCM sees fit to air it more often. The great opening sequence is a tracking shot across city streets to focus in on a brawl in a diner, initiated by Red Branahan (William Gargan) who insists that he started it to save the honor of his live-in gal Aggie (Wynne Gibson). Red is a charming roughneck gambler, but he can rarely scrape up rent money when the landlady (Jane Darwell) comes calling. When Red is arrested for beating up some cops, Aggie is left homeless, so her friend Sibby (Zasu Pitts) lets her stay overnight in an apartment house where she works, in the room of milquetoast Adoniram Schlump (Charles Farrell) while he's out looking for a job—he's from a rich family but he wants to make it on his own even though he has no discernible talents. But Schlump, who is engaged to socialite Evangeline, comes home early to find Aggie sacked out in his bed. He lets her stay and she sets out to make a man of him: she gets rid of his glasses, loosens his tie, ruffles his hair, and makes him take off his record of "Pomp and Circumstance" to listen to hot jazz.

Aggie takes him to apply for a job as construction gang supervisor and has him use Red's name, since Red has a city-wide rep as a tough guy. He gets the job and when he accidentally knocks out a troublemaker, the men look up to him, and soon Aggie finds herself falling for him. But when Red gets out of jail, Aggie has to choose; when she complains to Sibby about her situation, Sibby says, "A woman can't be in love with two men—she may think so, but one of 'em is just indigestion." (Another gem of wisdom from Sibby: "Men are like trees—the more you tap 'em, the more sap comes out.") Things get even tougher for Aggie when she realizes that she actually has begun to miss the kinder, gentler, well-mannered Schlump, especially missing that he used to call her Agnes instead of Aggie.

This sprightly romantic comedy kept me interested all the way through. Some may find the ending predictable, but right up until the last few minutes, I had the feeling it could go one of three ways: she winds up with a slightly toughed-up Schlump, she winds up with a slightly softened Red, or she leaves them both behind. I'm not that familiar with Gibson's work but she's very good in the Joan Blondell-type title role; Farrell's somewhat squeaky voice is put to good use, though I find his earlier look with glasses to be more attractive (pictured at left) than his macho makeover; Gargan (pictured above right with Gibson), a favorite character actor of mine, shines in the first fifteen minutes, though his character is more or less out of commission for the rest of the film. Zasu Pitts is fun as always. Other amusing lines: Gibson telling Farrell to change his vocabulary by using words "with hair on 'em"; when Gibson worries about how Farrell's fiancée would react if she went after him, Pitts says, "I'd say, Raspberries, Evangeline!" Very fun. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971)

John David Carson is a high school student with a problem: he gets an erection at the drop of a hat, so to speak, and despite himself is still a virgin. One day, when substitute teacher Angie Dickinson gets him hot and bothered, he excuses himself and heads off to the boys' room (with his notebook in front of his crotch) where he finds a dead girl in a stall, a note saying, "So long, honey" taped to her rear end. And soon enough, more dead girls show up around the school. Meanwhile, well-liked football coach and guidance counselor Rock Hudson tries to help Carson with his problem by putting Dickinson on the case—he tells her that Carson is impotent and she should give him confidence—and in a few days, Carson and Dickinson are sleeping together. We soon discover that Hudson is having sex with just about every girl in the school, all of whom are scantily dressed and flirtatious. Who could be killing all these pretty maids?

This is a crazy-ass movie that could only have been made in the crazy-ass 70s. The first half-hour centers on a teenage boy's erection (though we never see it, in or out of pants); every female student looks like a Playboy playmate; teachers have sex with students and there seem to be no problems with that, aside from the post-coital killings. It's not really a spoiler to note that Hudson is the killer, but his character has no consistent psychology—he is married with a young daughter and appears to love his wife, but still bangs schoolgirls a mile a minute. The killings seem to occur when the girls turn cold or want a commitment, but even that isn't clear or consistent. And in the somewhat surprising climax (which I won't spoil), it even appears as if his wife knows about his activities and is OK with them. Carson (pictured with Dickinson) is very cute and handles his unusual role well, and Dickinson is fine. Hudson seems a little at sea, like he couldn't quite commit to a murderous villain role. Also in the cast without much distinction are Telly Savalas as a detective (looking every inch like Kojak, the role he would become famous for a couple of years later), Roddy McDowell as the ineffectual principal, and Keenan Wynn as a police chief. I guess I'd have to say I enjoyed the movie, but I felt kinda gross afterward. [TCM]

Monday, August 25, 2014

THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS (1957)

In the woods near a resort lodge in a small town in Utah, vacationing lawyer Lex Barker is smooching with resort employee Anne Bancroft when they find the body of a young woman who has been brutally murdered, her throat cut and mutilating slashes across her lips and eyes. Everyone agrees she was, shall we say, a woman of loose morals, but hardly deserved that kind of demise. Local sheriff John Dehner has plenty of suspects: the woman-hating owner of the lodge (Ron Randell) who has had psychosomatic paralysis ever since a girlfriend left him; his overly-protective sister (Marie Windsor); a washed-up actor (John Holland) and his little totsy (Mamie Van Doren) who was friends with the dead woman; employee Indian Joe who is a little slow but also menacingly hulking especially with a knife in his hands; a mysterious man named Feldman who checked in after the murder; hunky young Frankie (Gerald Frank); even Barker and Bancroft come under suspicion. More people die before the culprit is discovered.

This outdoorsy mystery has some promise, and a plot that for the most part is easy to follow, but the actors all seem to be sleepwalking through it, and it runs out of steam before the 60-minute mark, overstaying its welcome by a good 20 minutes. Barker (pictured with Randell) is OK, and I liked Dehner as the sheriff—he seems to be auditioning for a TV series about a laconic small-town cop. The two characters with the most potential, Bancroft and Windsor, aren't fleshed out enough to really be interesting, and Randell's character, who is supposed to be somewhat sympathetic, is very unpleasant, both as written and as acted. The death of one character near the end at a lumber mill is confusingly shot and, as far as I could tell, completely unmotivated. Fans of Van Doren will be disappointed since, despite her third billing, she only has one big scene. There are psychological threads galore, though most go nowhere: in addition to Randell's odd paralysis, there's Windsor's overdone attention to her brother and Bancroft's cold-fish ways with Barker despite her surface flirtatiousness. Not to mention that strange death at the lumber mill. The Utah setting is a plus. Overall, the movie is not hard to watch but it's hard to like. [TCM]

Thursday, August 21, 2014

SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD (1961)

The hero of this sword-and sandal film set in China, in the original Italian version, is Maciste, though in the English dub, he's just a somewhat random muscleman (Gordon Scott) who has taken the legendary name Samson to strike fear into the hearts of villains. Here, he's battling a Mongol horde led by Garak, who has a Chinese princess under his thumb. Garak tries to get rid of her teenage brother by throwing him in a pit with a tiger, but Samson leaps in and successfully wrestles the tiger (alternately an old and tired live one and a bug-eyed stuffed one), saving the boy. Then he joins forces with some Chinese rebels to free the princess from a forced marriage to Garak. There's some folderol involving Chinese monks and seven miracles that are supposed to happen, the final one being that, when Garak's men entomb Samson in a tiny crawlspace underground, he finds the superhuman strength to break free and in doing so triggers an earthquake that spells an end to the Mongols. Because the muscled Scott played Tarzan in the 50s and because in this movie all he wears is a dangly red loincloth, this felt like a Tarzan-goes-to-China movie for me, which makes as much sense as a faux-Samson (or even an Italian Maciste) in China. The best scene is one in which he stops racing horses from executing a group of men buried up to their necks in the ground. Aside from the novelty of its setting and the presence of Scott, who is a notch above most peplum actors, this is nothing special. The print from Alpha Video is technically letterboxed, but because jarring pan-and-scan cuts remain, I suspect it is not presented at its true original aspect ratio. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WHITE PONGO (1945)

An explorer named Gunderson has been captured by an African tribe and is tied up as though for sacrifice, but an older man, Prof. Gerig, also being held by the tribe, comes to his rescue. He lets Gunderson go but asks him to take the journal of the late Dierdorf, whose expedition Gerig was on, back to civilization. A huge white ape—the White Pongo of the title—appears in the village and Gunderson gets away while it goes on a rampage. He makes his way to a European outpost and dies of a fever, but gets the journal delivered to a British anthropologist named Bragdon (Gordon Richards) who realizes that Dierdorf assumed the White Pongo was the missing link between ape and man. Bragdon takes an expedition out to capture the ape to take back to London. Of course, there are complications: Bragdon's daughter Pamela (Maris Wrixon) is along and Bragdon's secretary Carswell (Michael Dyne) has a thing for her. She has dallied with him in the past, but now she falls for Bishop (Richard Fraser), one of the hired riflemen; the fact that's he's rather stand-offish just inflames her interest. Along with the group is the German Kroegert who is secretly using the trip as a way to find a legendary gold mine that he can claim. And, of course, there's the menacing White Pongo, in addition to the run-of-the-mill menacing apes one finds in African jungles in the movies.

This Poverty Row adventure really has little to recommend it—no name actors, long plodding sections of people canoeing down a river or walking through jungles, not much plot—but still I stayed with it to the end, and the end is the most interesting part because [SPOILER] unlike in the average Tarzan movie, in this one the trappers get the ape and take it to England. Of course, the trappers here are scientists rather than zookeepers or hunters, so we're supposed to be on their side. There are no hunky shirtless heroes here: Fraser, ostensibly the hero, is quite bland and passive even though he turns out to be a Rhodesian secret agent on the trail of Kroegert; he's supposed to be stoic but he comes off more as petulant and boring. As the femme interest, Wrixon (pictured with Fraser) is equally bland, and for most of the movie, fairly unlikable. There is dreadful comic relief in the person of George Lloyd as a Cockney-accented ass who I kept wishing would get torn limb from limb by the apes—though I did chuckle when he called the ape the "blinkin’ missing link." The best I can say about the actors is that Dyne is appropriately slimy as Carswell who winds up going over to Kroegert's side when Pamela throws him over. The ape outfits are actually not bad, though they’re largely wasted because, aside from the opening scene, the White Pongo never really bothers anyone until the climax. Only recommended for mild novelty. [YouTube]

Monday, August 18, 2014

THE STORY OF RUTH (1960)

Frankly, most of my knowledge of the Bible comes from popular culture; my only direct exposure to the Old Testament (except for plowing my way through Genesis on a summer vacation) was when I took a Jewish history class in college. So this story was new to me—if I get the details wrong, blame it on the filmmakers. The film breaks the tale into three parts. We begin in the land of Moab, where the people worship the bug-eyed god Chemosh and once a year pick a worthy young girl to sacrifice to him. In the opening scene, the 5-year-old Ruth is picked for the "honor," but a rash appears mysteriously on her arm and she is declared unfit. Then the narrative jumps ahead some years to focus on Mahlon (Tom Tryon), a Judean from Bethlehem whose family moved to Moab to escape famine and poverty. He is hired to make a glittering crown for the next sacrifice and winds up hitting it off with the grown-up Ruth (Elana Eden), now a temple priestess, who is charmed by the stories of his "invisible" god who is everywhere and who does not demand human sacrifice. Soon Ruth rebels against her elders (Thayer David and Viveca Lindfords), and Tryon is held responsible and sentenced to life in slavery. She helps him escape but he is fatally wounded, and in his last dying moments, he "marries" Ruth. In the third part of the film, Mahlon's mother Naomi (Peggy Wood, pictured with Eden) resettles in Bethlehem and takes Ruth with her. They have a rough way to go: the Judeans don't trust the Moabite Ruth, and Mahlon's oldest brother Tob, a surly brute of a fellow, tries to claim Ruth as his wife based on Hebrew law, even though it's the younger brother Boaz (Stuart Whitman) who slowly falls for her.

This is a Biblical epic that, at just a little over two hours, doesn't wear out its welcome. Oddly, there are no big action scenes, but that's mostly made up for by sequences of much pomp (the sacrifices, the big feast at the end). The sets and costumes are also grand, and the narrative remains clear throughout. The acting is above average for the genre: Tryon (pictured at left) is quite good as Mahlon and his presence is missed in the second half. Whitman, his replacement as leading man, is good but not as personable. Israeli actress Eden is lovely but not the most expressive person—Ruth is at the center of the film but doesn't have much of a personality. I enjoyed seeing two actors I know from other indelible roles: Wood (the Reverend Mother in THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and David (Ben Stokes and his descendent the Professor on Dark Shadows). The widescreen print I saw was clean and crisp; it's also out on DVD. [Fox]

Monday, August 11, 2014

SHERLOCK HOLMES’ FATAL HOUR (1931)

aka THE SLEEPING CARDINAL

Our story begins with two plot threads that will obviously come together: 1) Someone is breaking into London bank vaults, injuring or killing the night watchmen, but no money is ever missing, and Inspector Lestrade asks for Holmes' help; 2) Ronald Adair, a British diplomat, has been cheating at cards and winning big, trying to keep up appearances after his inheritance went bust. His concerned sister, afraid he'll get in trouble if he's exposed, goes to Dr. Watson to see if Holmes can help her. We eventually see the connection: Adair is taken to a room where he is blackmailed by an underworld figure who speaks from behind a painting called The Sleeping Cardinal. The bank break-ins have involved stealing money and replacing it with counterfeit bills, then taking the real money overseas where it won't be traced. Adair, traveling with a diplomatic passport, doesn't have his luggage searched so the Voice wants him to smuggle the money out; if he refuses, he is told that his cheating ways will be exposed and he will be ruined. As Holmes delves into these cases he beings to suspect that the culprit is his old nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Arthur Wontner played Holmes is a series of 30s British B-films (I reviewed a previous film here) and is considered by some to the best movie Holmes. Wontner is fine, probably playing the character more like Doyle wrote him than most, but I still like Basil Rathbone best. One problem is that Wontner is very low-key, as is Ian Fleming as Watson. This leaves Lastrade (Phillip Hewland) to provide much of the energy. Leslie Perrins as Adair is fine, but no one else leaves much of an impression. Based loosely on two Doyle stories, "The Empty House" and "The Final Problem," this is one of the most strongly plotted of any Holmes film, and the cinematography gives the movie some atmosphere; the opening scene of the bank robbery is shot in almost total darkness with just enough glossy white light that we're confused about what's happening. Similarly, the spooky scene with the Sleeping Cardinal painting seems to have come right out of a Saturday matinee serial. Because Wontner's films are mostly in the public domain, available prints are often in poor condition, but the one I saw on Hulu Plus was in good shape. [Hulu Plus streaming]

Friday, August 08, 2014

SIMBA (1955)

This social issue/romance melodrama starts off with a bang: In rural Nairobi, an African man on a bicycle rides down the road and sees a white Englishman lying on the ground, beaten, bloodied, and moaning; we think the bicyclist will help him, but instead he kills the wounded man with a machete and rides away. We are in Kenya during the period of the Mau-Mau uprising, as loosely organized rebels against imperialism were committing acts of terror against the Europeans, and forcing other natives to either join their group or keep quiet about their plans. Alan (Dirk Bogarde) arrives in Kenya to visit his brother's farm and possibly reunite with old flame Mary (Virginia McKenna), but his brother is the man we saw killed in the opening, so Alan decides to stay and run the farm. There is little explanation of the Mau-Mau agenda; the British can't understand why even whites who are "nice" to the natives are being targeted, and they decide that even asking why would be fruitless since the Africans are basically backward children. (Of course, no one seems to realize that that very formulation is part of the problem—even the most sympathetic white characters think of their native servants as children.) Mary seems to grasp at least some of the complexities of the issues, but Alan is openly hostile to the natives, as played out in his relationship with Peter Karanja (Earl Cameron), an African doctor tortured by his being stuck in the middle, not completely trusted by his fellow natives or by many of the British. Peter's story winds up being much more compelling than the Alan/Mary romance, partly because his character is more fleshed out; he has a secret that leads to tragedy at the end. The murder scenes are surprisingly brutal for the time. Bogarde doesn't seem to be fully engaged; McKenna is OK, though occasionally she looked like Julie Andrews and I expected her to break out in song and fix everything with her drape-made wardrobe or her parrot-handle umbrella. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

CAPTAIN THUNDER (1930)

In El Paramo, a "sleepy oasis" in the middle of the Mexican badlands, a charming bandit known as El Capitan Thunder (Victor Varconi, pictured) is upset at the small reward being offered for his arrest, so he makes a promise to rob the next stagecoach—and the one thing everyone knows about Captain Thunder is that he always keeps his promises. Commandante Ruiz (Charles Judels) insists he is prepared and will stop Thunder, but when the stagecoach arrives, it has indeed been burglarized and all its passengers, including the lovely young Ynez (Fay Wray), are clad only in their underwear, having had their clothes stolen. Thunder, quite taken by Ynez, gallantly returns her clothes and discovers that she is in love with the handsome but poor Juan, although her father wants her to marry the older, nasty American rancher Morgan. Thunder winds up in a spot because of his ethics: he promises to help Ynez marry Juan—which he does by letting Juan capture him and get the reward money (which has gone up considerably since the beginning of the movie), but he has also promised Morgan a favor, and that favor winds up being to stop Ynez's marriage to Juan. Thunder's solution is ingenious (and could never have happened if this had been made a few years later under the strictures of the Production Code)—SPOILER! Immediately after Morgan and Ynez are married, while all the guests are still present, Thunder takes Morgan offscreen and shoots him dead. Now Ynez inherits his land AND gets the cute Juan. And Thunder gets away scot free.

Most critical commentary on this movie focuses on the bad sound and the performance of Varconi, a Hungarian actor who played a wide range of exotic roles. The dialogue is indeed difficult to follow at times, between the dicey recording and the exaggerated accents of several of the actors. And Varconi is not the ideal hero: at almost 40, he's a smidge old for the adventurous lead, showing signs of going to seed, and at times he seems like he's playing a supporting role. But he's game and his light touch is just right for the tone of the film—which makes the climax all the more surprising. Wray, the year before KING KONG, doesn't really stand out, thought Judels is good as the buffoonish Ruiz. Don Alverado, as Juan, was kind of a B-movie Valentino, though he never got past supporting parts. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

IF IT’S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE BELGIUM (1969)

A World-Wind Tour bus leaves London for a 2-week trip through Europe with a bunch of American tourists. Of course, most of them are comic variations on the "Ugly American" stereotypes: Murray Hamilton is a grouser who constantly complains that things aren't like they are back home; his teenage daughter (Hilary Thompson) is looking for a cute boy to spend time with; Norman Fell's wife (Reva Rose) accidentally winds up on a different tour and he spends all his time trying to contact her; Marty Ingels takes pictures of sexy native women, intending to tell his buddies back home that he slept with all of them; Michael Constantine is a war vet revisiting old sites; Sandy Baron is looking forward to visiting relatives in Italy, unaware that they're ready to marry him off to a cousin. The main plotline involves Suzanne Pleshette, a lovely young single woman who seems vaguely dissatisfied with her fiancé; the handsome English tour guide (Ian McShane) wants to add her to his long list of erotic conquests, but through a series of comic misadventures, she remains mostly aloof until they begin to develop real feelings for each other. Then who should show up but her well-meaning but whitebread fiancé.

Having been released in 1969, this comedy is awkwardly situated between old and new; the stereotypes are obvious, much of the humor is dated, and few of the characters or situations are surprising, but with the swinging single tour guide, the movie tries to be hip, and the plotline involving the teenage daughter is totally 60s: she and the moderately cute political agitator she hooks up with (Luke Halpin, star of TV's Flipper) travel about and visit a youth hostel—in which 60s icon Donovan strums guitar and sings the gloomy, folky "Lord of the Reedy River." (He also wrote the cute title song but does not sing it.) Though the film was shot on location—Rome, Brussels, Amsterdam, Venice—it mostly has a drab TV-movie look. Some of the performances are pitched in a one-note TV way; particularly irritating are Fell, Constantine and Ingels. But the young McShane (pictured with Pleshette) is a nice surprise, and Pleshette and Baron are very good as well. Also with Peggy Cass and Mildred Natwick, both underused. Aubrey Morris, who I know as Alex's counselor in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, has a small, almost completely silent role as a man who brings an empty piece of luggage into which he puts stolen objects from each stop. Watch all the way to the credits for a final fun scene involving Morris. There are also very brief cameos from John Cassavettes, Robert Vaughan, Vittorio De Sica, and Virna Lisi, among others. Mild fun for fans of the era. [TCM]