Friday, August 28, 2015

NANCY GOES TO RIO (1950)

Famous actress Ann Sothern heads off to Rio on a vacation with her father (Louis Calhern) before she takes on her next musical. But the show's playwright is not happy that a 40-year-old woman will be playing his heroine, meant to be around 20. (It must be said that Sothern looks fabulous here, and could probably easily pass for 20 on stage.) After Sothern leaves, her teenage daughter (Jane Powell, the "Nancy" of the title), part of a summer stock acting troupe, comes to the attention of the playwright who [in Goofy Misunderstanding #1] offers her the part without telling her that Sothern thinks she has the part. So Powell heads down to Rio with a copy of the play, hoping to get her mom to help her prepare for her Broadway debut. On the ship, Powell has the (obnoxious) habit of reading her lines out loud in public, and when she delivers an overwrought monologue about having her child even though her husband has deserted her, well-meaning businessman Barry Sullivan [in Goofy Misunderstanding #2] assumes she's pregnant and alone, and he and many other passengers take her under their wings. When Sullivan expresses his concern and offers of help, she [in Goofy Misunderstanding #3] assumes he's proposing marriage. In Rio, Sothern and Calhern get in on the mix-up and add to it when Sullivan starts flirting with Sothern, and suddenly everyone assumes that [in Goofy Misunderstanding #4] mother and daughter are competing for the same man.

Sometimes my friends chide me for being too serious about my movie watching. "Don't you ever just switch off your brain and enjoy a movie without overthinking it?" they ask. "Not very often," I reply. I would argue that I think differently about different kinds of movies, so I don't approach, say, CITIZEN KANE and DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE with the same expectations. But usually, no matter how popcorny the movie, I'm thinking critically about my experience of watching it. However, this fluffy musical battered my brain senseless with its bright colors, high energy, pretty faces, and the musical genre's great secret weapon, Carmen Miranda (at left). As usual, Miranda's role is totally expendable—I couldn't tell you a thing about her character except she works in an office—but every time she's on screen, she adds an energizing jolt of life to the proceedings, which often threaten to go stale. She gets to perform two songs in her patented "tutti-frutti" style and they are the musical standouts in a very forgettable batch of songs. The only other interesting musical moment is when Sothern, Powell and Calhern do a cute version of "Shine On, Harvest Moon," which only highlights how bland the original tunes are.

In addition to Hurricane Carmen, the movie's other pluses include the sparkling lead actresses, Sothern and Powell, who look gorgeous, act well, and have good mother-daughter chemistry. Powell in particular wears you down pleasantly with her spunky performance. Calhern is fun as a retired actor who can't quit acting, Scotty Beckett (above with Powell) is fine as Sothern's sweet, gawky boyfriend back home, Hans Conreid has a nice couple of moments as Sothern's butler in Rio, and Glenn Anders fleshes out a fairly small role as Sothern's gayish manager. Only Sullivan serves as bit of a buzzkill, never quite letting go enough to fit in with the general antic mood. No attempt is made at making it seem like Rio (maybe 30 seconds of location footage is included), but it was the colorful sets and costumes that really sent me into a fog of non-critical thinking.  Make no mistake: this is not a classic like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but I would gladly succumb to its mild charms again sometime. [TCM]

Thursday, August 27, 2015

BOMBA ON PANTHER ISLAND (1949)

Rob Maitland (Harry Lewis) is in the jungles of Africa with his daughter Judy, on, what we are told, amounts to an island, hoping to build a plantation from scratch. However, he is having trouble keeping native workers employed to clear the land—they are superstitious and fear that cutting down the trees will rouse evil spirits. They also tell Eli, Rob's native assistant, that they think Rob's native housekeeper Losana is inhabited by the spirit of a panther, and indeed a panther has been prowling around and attacking the workmen. Rob and Judy are living with Mr. Barnes, colonial overseer, who tries to steer Rob on a middle path between native superstition and Western expansionism.

Enter Bomba, the Jungle Boy (Johnny Sheffield), who is, as Barnes tells Rob, "one of those jungle legends," an American boy left orphaned in the jungle at the age of 7, and now ten years later a strapping, self-sufficient teenager who speaks in broken English. We have earlier seen Bomba stalking a panther that killed his chimpanzee buddy, and now, when he helps a worker wounded by the panther get back to Barnes' house, Bomba gets entangled in the affairs of Rob and company. Rob is happy that Bomba might kill the dreaded panther, but the natives are unhappy because they call the panther—who might be Losana—taboo and think killing it will jinx them. Judy, who is tired of the jungle and wants to go back "where life means more than heat and insects and superstition and certain failure," is eventually charmed by Bomba, and he by her. When Losana gets a little flirty with Bomba, a mild triangle threatens to develop (though it never amounts to much dramatically). As far as what does develop dramatically, take note of two casually-dropped references early in the film: 1) Rob is thinking of clearing the trees by setting a fire; 2) Barnes' house is reinforced because occasionally, a "stiff wind from the veldt" blows up.

As I’d noted in an earlier review, I avoided Bomba movies for most of my life, but I'm enjoying discovering them now. Once you accept the limitations of the studio (Monogram, king of Poverty Row), the budgets (low but not bottom of the barrel), and the actors (mid-range but sincere), they are good Saturday-matinee fun. Like the first film, this one does a decent job of integrating stock footage—of monkeys in trees, of crocodiles, of panthers—with studio sets. Whenever the action starts to slow down, they cut to stock footage. Sheffield is growing on me; in the first film, I found him rather monotone and morose, but now I believe that his performance is crafted that way. He smiles more this time around—maybe because he's got two lovely ladies paying attention to him. He’s also hunky, in a stocky college wrestler kind of way, and more so than Weissmuller's Tarzan (for whom Sheffield played "Boy" for a while), his innocence and naivety seem genuine. Harry Lewis is fine as the antagonist, who for a change is not portrayed as broadly evil, just misguided. Irish actor Charles Irwin is OK as Barnes, and Allene Roberts is good as Judy. Lita Baron gets the thankless role of the mostly silent Losana, whose possible supernatural essence is teasingly suggested though nothing really comes of it. I've heard the series declines over the next few years, but until they do, I'll keep watching them—on Saturday afternoons with a big tub of popcorn in my lap. (Pictured are Sheffield, Roberts, and Woods.) [DVD]

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY (1931)

In pre-Revolution Russia, Dr. Boris Karlov (yes, that's the character’s name, played by Warner Oland) discovers his daughter, Anya, in bed, in agony and drenched in sweat. She's single and pregnant, and has tried to kill herself. When the Petroff necklace falls from her hand in her delirium, Karlov determines that one of the Petroff boys is responsible for her fate and vows to get revenge against the family. The necklace, made up of small jewels that look like drummers, has a legend attached: if one of the drummers is detached and sent to someone, that person will die within 24 hours. Anya goes rushing to the Petroffs and with her dying breath warns Gregor, her former lover, about her father's threat. Karlov follows waving a gun and says he'll detach the drummers and send them one by one to all the Petroff men. Years later, after the revolution when Karlov has become an influential Bolshevik, the Petroff patriarch receives a drummer and dies in his sleep that night. The Petroff brothers decide to leave for America, theoretically for political asylum, but on the ship, Ivan gets a drummer and is thrown overboard in the night. And then there were two…

Diplomat Martin Kent arranges to help the remaining brothers, Gregor and Nicholas, but upon their arrival in the United States, assassins give chase and wound Nicholas, so the two wind up taking refuge in the apartment of the lovely Kitty Conover and her cranky aunt Abbie. When they all endure a close call at the hands of Karlov's men, Kitty offers her family's country mansion as a safe house for the Petroff brothers—she has responded positively to some flirting from Nicholas—but even there, the men aren't truly safe and a wild ride is had by all before justice is done (by which I mean, SPOILER, Karlov kills Gregor, but is himself killed before he can get Nicholas, leaving the last Petroff free for Kitty, who seems spunky enough to avoid poor Anya's fate).

The filmmaking is a bit creaky here and there, but for a fairly early B-talkie, this moves well and is still enjoyable to watch. At 75 minutes, there is a lot of plot crammed in here, some bits more plausible than others, but the pace never slows down and the last half becomes sort of an old-dark-house thriller which also involves a room filled with poison gas and another room filling with rushing water. Oland is excellent as the man who, in the opening scene, looks like a mad doctor (see picture above), but is actually a caring father who goes a little crazy with revenge. Most of the other actors are not particular standouts, but Clara Blandick (Aunt Em in THE WIZARD OF OZ) has fun in the comic relief role of the aunt, and in fact, she plays a crucial role at the climax. Mischa Auer has a small role as one of Karlov's henchmen. (As for "Boris Karlov," that was apparently the name of the character in the original story, and this film was made just before Boris Karloff shot to fame in FRANKENSTEIN). [YouTube]

Monday, August 24, 2015

UPTIGHT (1968)

In Cleveland, days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a group of black activists sets out to steal a large shipment of guns and ammo. Johnny (Max Julien) comes to get the help of his friend Tank (Julian Mayfield), but Tank begs off, claiming to be too drunk to help—though clearly he's also depressed, due not just to the assassination, but also lack of money and the sad state of his personal life, which involves a former girlfriend who is raising a child alone. During the robbery, Johnny shoots a guard who later dies, and the cops are after him in force. Tank winds up getting much of the blame for the fiasco, and his former friends and associates turn their backs on him. In desperate need of cash, Tank winds up informing on Johnny for a reward. Johnny winds up killed by the cops, and when Tank goes on a spending spree at a local bar, the activists realize what he's done, sealing his fate.

This is based on the 1935 John Ford film THE INFORMER, set during the period of the Troubles in Ireland, and it follows the trajectory of that film closely. The Informer was shot on a low budget, with director John Ford using shadows and fog to hide the shoddy sets, and making a minor masterpiece of atmosphere. Here, nighttime location shooting on the streets of Cleveland gives the movie a similarly effective look. Most reviews compare Uptight unfavorably to The Informer, but I found this to be a compelling and well-acted update of, though certainly not a replacement for, the Ford film. Mayfield (pictured), like Victor McLaglen in the 1935 film, comes off as both sympathetic and pathetic, and delivers an strong anchoring performance—all the more remarkable for the fact that this was his only major film role; he was primarily a writer and a civil rights activist. Good performances are also given by Ruby Dee as Tank's ex, Raymond St. Jacques as the militant leader, and Roscoe Lee Browne as a gay police informer who Tank blames for his own actions. The street scene in which the cops come looking for Johnny is exceptionally well done. Some critics note that the focus on racial politics takes away from a focus on character, but I thought the film had a good balance of the two. This crops up nowhere but is available on DVD from Olive Films. [DVD]

Friday, August 21, 2015

MR. ARKADIN (1955)

aka CONFIDENTIAL REPORT

Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a petty crook who is smuggling cigarettes in Milan. We first see him and his girlfriend Mily at night on the docks, on the run from cops, when they almost literally stumble across a dying man named Bracco, who was stabbed by a one-legged man. Bracco whispers the name "Sophie" and implies that if they can get to rich industrialist Gregory Arkadin and mention that name along with Bracco's name, they might make some money from Arkadin—we assume by blackmail. But when Van Stratten finally gets to Arkadin (Orson Welles, at right), by cozying up to his pampered daughter Raina, things take a different turn: Arkadin tells Van Stratten that his earliest memory is of standing on a street corner in Zurich in the winter of 1927 with 200,000 Swiss francs and no memory of his life before. So Arakdin hires Van Stratten to dig up whatever he can about his life before 1927. Traipsing across Europe, Van Stratten runs into a number of interesting characters who knew Arkadin and remember that he made his money running a white slavery ring, but soon most of these folks wind up dead and Van Stratten realizes that he might be next.

This infamous Orson Welles film has been released in a variety of cuts over the years, and because Welles had no hand in the final cut of any version, none of the films has been accepted as standard. The recent Criterion set has three versions of the film; the one I'm reviewing was released by Warner Bros. as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT. It is the most maligned of the three, largely because it simplifies the arcane narrative structure a bit, but having also watched the "Comprehensive" version put together by Welles scholars based on his notes, I think the Warners cut is actually better. No matter how many ways one puts the various pieces and parts together, the story is the same and there are some ambiguities present, and in my summary, I smoothed over some jagged edges. But despite reports that the movie is a mess, it's actually fairly easy to follow; what's not easy is understanding character motivations; everyone remains something of a cipher—Arkadin of course, but no character is really fleshed out, and Van Stratten remains about as cloaked in mystery as Arkadin, to the point where I think a movie about him might be almost as interesting as one about Arkadin.

Welles, spinning another CITIZEN KANE-type biopic about a mysterious but larger-than-life figure, has a good time hamming it up as Arkadin, wearing an eccentric beard and an obviously theatrical wig. The person with the most screen time is Robert Arden as Van Stratten. Critics tend to find his performance lacking, but I liked him a lot. Arden makes the character a little bit likable and a little bit despicable, and no smarter or dumber than he needs to be. Given that the screenplay gives him little help, he works wonders with his face and his often strained tone of voice. (Speaking of voice, the fact that probably 75% of the dialogue is post-dubbed—even though most of the actors are English speakers—is a burden to the viewer, especially since sometimes the dubbing is worse than that found in Japanese monster movies. I think it's worth trying to get past that distraction.) Patricia Medina as Mily and Paola Mori as Raina are both fairly weak as the potential femme fatales—and Medina's post-dubbing is particularly poor. A handful of character actors deliver strong support, including Akim Tamiroff, Peter van Eyck, Suzanne Flon (in a small role as a baroness, though she should have played Mily) and Katina Paxinou as the mysterious Sophie. Best of all is Michael Redgrave as a junk dealer (pictured at left, to the right of Robert Arden); he's about as close as the movie comes to any comic relief and though his character is not important, he's slyly riveting in his few minutes on screen.

As in any Welles movie, it’s worth seeing for its visual style alone. Cockeyed camera angles and close-ups abound, along with a strong film-noir use of light and shadow in many scenes. There are several bravura sequences beginning, well, at the beginning with the dock scene, followed by a grand and expensive-looking masked ball, and an almost nausea-inducing scene between Arkadin and Mily on his boat. Both versions of the film that I watched feel unfinished and a little raw in spots, but I think it's well worth making time to see a version of this. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

BOMBA, THE JUNGLE BOY (1949)

George Harland is a world-class photographer; along with his teenage daughter Patricia, also a published photographer, he is in Africa on a photographic safari with his old friend Andy as guide and protector. But George is a stubborn, impatient, imperious fool who insists on taking unnecessary risks that rile up Andy, and Pat seems to be following in her father's footsteps. When George insists on going beyond the Big Rift, a dangerous area when no white man has ever been, Andy balks but ultimately agrees to take them. Pat goes off on her own, winding up lost, and just as a leopard attacks, she is saved by a teenage boy in a loincloth who calls himself Bomba. She feels threatened by him at first, but soon a bond forms between them and, when she wants to go find her father, Bomba reluctantly helps her. Along the way, she learns that Bomba was brought to the jungle years ago by a scientist who was searching for a place for himself outside of civilization. The man is now dead and Pat wants Bomba to return to the outside world with them. But soon, thanks to George's foolhardiness, they're all in trouble when they are caught witnessing a native tribe's lion hunt, a taboo event for outsiders.

Bomba movies ran frequently on TV back in the 60s but I had never seen one until now. To be honest, I've avoided them because of pictures I'd seen of Johnny Sheffield, who as a child actor played Boy to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan throughout the 40s, looking rather bloated and unenthusiastic in the title role. But in this first Bomba outing, Sheffield, at 18, is actually not bad, and the movie itself, despite being made at low-budget Monogram Studios, does a nice job of incorporating stock footage of Africa into the studio sets. Especially effective are repeated shots of flocking birds and leaping monkeys, and there are even a couple of brief scenes of animals killing each other. Sheffield's voice is surprisingly deep—I thought at first that he had been dubbed—and his acting is adequate. The character is not as charming as Tarzan, being a bit more stand-offish, but I liked the scene of his first contact with Pat (Peggy Ann Garner, very good in the role); after he saves her from a panther attack, she pulls a gun on him and he understandably finds it difficult to warm up to her. She keeps begging him to help her and he keeps saying "You tried to hurt me." Onslow Stevens plays Harland as an unrepentant but bland jackass; much better is Charles Irwin as the Scottish Andy. A pleasant diversion; perhaps I'll take the plunge and watch a few more of these in the future. [Warner Archive Instant]

Monday, August 17, 2015

SECRET ENEMIES (1942)

This is one of those fun Warner Bros. B-movies that is well-produced, fast-moving, acted just well enough, and goes by in a flash. Storyline #1: On the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, German-American hotel owner Frank Reicher goes to his lawyer and friend (Craig Stevens) to see if he can help get his ailing wife out of Germany before war is declared. Stevens tries but is unsuccessful; however, Reicher's chauffeur puts him in touch with a doctor (Robert Warwick) who turns out to be a Nazi spy and who offers help if Reicher will let Warwick and his spies operate out of his hotel. Reluctantly, Reicher agrees. Storyline #2: Two FBI agents, John Ridgely and Charles Lang, are chasing a German spy and, at the recommendation of Stevens, who knows Lang, they stay at Reicher's hotel. Lang's room turns out to be a trap; a bellboy brings Lang a radio, and when he turns it on, a poison gas is pumped out which kills Lang. Because the hotel was suggested by Stevens, Ridgely suspects him of the murder, but when Stevens applies to be become an agent to avenge Lang's death, Ridgely becomes his teacher and mentor. Soon the plotlines converge and Stevens and Ridgely are hot on the trail of Warwick and his thugs.

With a running time of 57 minutes, there is not an ounce of fat on this speedy little spy thriller. There is a lot of plot—I've left out an entire thread about Stevens' girlfriend (Faye Emerson), a chanteuse in the hotel club, who may or may not be helping the Nazis—and a lot of action, with at least three separate well-staged slam-bang scenes of fistfights and gunplay. The poison gas scenes—there are two—are nicely played. Ridgely, who is one of my favorite B-actors of the 40s, and Stevens (both pictured above) are fine, though Warwick's performance as the head Nazi is a little underdone. Emerson's character seems like an afterthought to get some femme appeal in. But I'm not going to quibble—this is a solid B-film that I would watch again. [TCM]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

TARZAN TRIUMPHS (1943)

Tarzan's son Boy gets in trouble while climbing down a cliff to catch a glimpse of the hidden city of Pallandria. Zandra, a princess of the lost city, helps Tarzan save him. Tarzan's mate Jane is off in England tending to a sick relative, but she sends back word about the war with the Nazis, which has not yet affected Tarzan's homeland. But soon the Nazis begin circling the jungle looking for oil and other natural resources to use. An injured German paratrooper is saved and taken in by Tarzan and Boy. Schmidt, the Nazi, pretends to be British and is nursed back to health while secretly repairing his radio equipment so he can send for reinforcements. Meanwhile, the other Nazis have held a bloodless coup in Pallandria, forcing Zandra's tribe to work as slave labor in getting precious elements to use in the war effort. When a Nazi colonel tries to rape Zandra, her hunky brother Achmet steps in but is killed for his efforts. Back at Tarzan's place, Schmidt tries to kill Cheetah the chimp when he interrupts a radio transmission, but an elephant comes to the rescue, tossing the Nazi off a cliff. Zandra makes her way to Tarzan's place and asks for his help, but he remains a staunch isolationist, even after Boy teaches Zandra to flirt with Tarzan to get her way. However, when the Nazis come looking for Schmidt's radio and wind up kidnapping Boy, Tarzan finally gets pissed and joins Zandra in kicking some Nazi ass.

The war gave a new context to action movies and thrillers in general, especially B-genre movies, and the Tarzan series, downgraded from glossy MGM to lesser studio RKO, needed something new to stay interesting. At almost 40, Johnny Weismuller was looking a little too chunky to be comfortable swinging through the trees in a loincloth, and the actress who played Jane, Maureen O'Sullivan, had left. So Nazis were just the right ingredient to spice up the franchise. (The next film in the series, TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY makes the Nazis a fairly minor element while throwing in some more fantastic elements like a giant spider.) Frances Gifford is OK as Zandra, Johnny Sheffield is very good as Boy, Stanley Ridges is the Nazi colonel, and Stanley Brown is the ill-fated Achemt. A nice pick-me-up for a series starting to go stale. (Check out that fabulous treehouse compound of Tarzan's pictured at left--click on it for a bigger version.) [TCM]

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

DANCE HALL (1941)

This film opens as though it's going to be a peppy, carefree B-musical, but if you are a credit watcher, you'll see that it's based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, whose other novels and stories were adapted as noir-type crime movies, including SCARFACE, THE BEAST OF THE CITY and HIGH SIERRA, so be warned. The setting is the dance hall at Paradise Park, called Danceland; Cesar Romero is the charming but arrogant owner; William Henry is the young piano player who longs to write a symphony; Carole Landis is the new singer for the band. The night before she starts, Landis meets cute with Romero when she complains about the noisy late-night crap game Romero is involved in next door to her hotel room—she winds up joining the game and winning all the money. Soon, however, there are misunderstandings and entanglements: Landis is romanced by bland but nice guy J. Edward Bromberg; Romero tries to make her jealous by paying attention to June Storey, a gold-digging waitress; Henry is sweet on Storey, but we see she'll kiss anyone, and soon even her mild-mannered boss (Charles Halton) is hitting on her. Storey is inclined to hang out with the piano player when she finds out he has a little money saved up—to go to New York to try and sell his symphony—but after he gives it to Romero to help him out of a tight spot with some gamblers, she loses interest. In the end, Romero comes up with a scheme involving a dance contest with a big cash prize that he hopes will set everything right with everyone.

I assume based on Burnett's reputation that the original novel, titled The Giant Swing, was a bit more hard-boiled than this film turned out. As it is, the movie's tone is awkwardly situated between romantic comedy and gambling melodrama—but it's never very funny or very dramatic. The romance between Romero and Landis is played ambiguously, to the point where I was a little surprised that they walked into sunset together at the end. The threats against Romero (pictured above, standing over Henry) are blandly presented and, partly due to Henry's bland performance, the piano player’s storyline is absolutely forgettable. Romero and Landis are fine, though without much chemistry, and it was nice to see Bromberg playing something besides an ethnic type. Landis sings a couple of so-so songs, one with the unusual title, "There’s a Lull in My Life." [YouTube]

Monday, August 10, 2015

FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

This anthology movie of three stories of the fantastic is framed by Robert Benchley as a man who is upset over a fortune teller's predictions and some disturbing dreams. He chats with a friend about fate and the friend tells three stories on the subject. In the first tale, set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, unloved and homely Betty Field (pictured) is in love from afar with handsome young Robert Cummings. When the body of a suicide victim is pulled out of the river, Field is envious but before she can act on her impulse, an old man takes her to a mask shop and tells her to put on a mask and be beautiful until midnight. She and Cummings bond, and she talks him through a rough patch in his life. At midnight, she takes off the mask and her face is beautiful, made that way because she has given up bitterness and given selflessly to another. Next is an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde story in which Edward G. Robinson is told by a palm reader (Thomas Mitchell) that he is going to commit murder. Though he's not a believer in the supernatural, Robinson decides to get it over with and kill someone. He soon finds it's not quite that easy to mess with destiny. The final tale features Charles Boyer as an acrobat billed as the Drunken Gentleman whose act is to walk on the high wire while acting drunk. One night, he has a dream that he falls from the wire and sees a woman in the audience screaming; later, he meets the woman (Barbara Stanwyck) in real life. I think anthology TV shows like Twilight Zone have made movies like this feel obsolete, but in 1943 this was probably seen as unusual. While there are some arresting images in the film, only the first tale is memorable, mostly because of the magical midnight atmosphere. Acting is fine as is the cinematography. This might make good Halloween viewing, maybe as part of a double feature with the British DEAD OF NIGHT. [DVD]