Monday, September 26, 2016

VEILED ARISTOCRATS (1932)

John Walden left his home in Fayetteville twenty years ago, leaving behind his mother and baby sister—and his African-American identity—to pass for white, go to law school and become a successful lawyer in the big city.  Now he's returned to his family home (called the House Behind the Cedars by the townsfolk) with an agenda: to take his grown-up light-skinned sister Rena back to the city, have her pass for white, and marry her off to an appropriately well-off white man. But Rena's in love with local fellow Frank and isn't crazy about leaving. Frank thinks she should go with John for a while, if only to give Frank time to become successful as a building contractor. Six months later, Rena is installed in a nice house with African-American servants and has a marriage proposal from wealthy white man George Tryon, but ultimately she decides to give up her sham life, go back to Fayetteville, and marry Frank.

This early talkie from the acclaimed black director Oscar Micheaux exists only in a very worn and choppy print, at times making the plot machinations a bit unclear. But even excusing this, the movie is hard to sit through. Almost every scene consists of two or three people in a room talking, with breaks every so often for a completely unrelated musical number—one is sung at a fancy party, one by a maid at work, and the last one, which goes on for almost six minutes, features Rena's servants kicking up their heels at her return to her roots (as one woman says, laughing, "Once they love a spade, ain't nobody can take him away—and I bet he's a dark one!"). Frankly, this number is the highlight of the film which in general is poorly acted and directed. Lorenzo Tucker (pictured), known as the Black Valentino, is credible as John, as is Laura Bowman as his mother. In an interesting twist, the white George is played by light-skinned black actor Barrington Guy who never made another movie but was known as a dancer and nightclub performer. The rest of the cast feels amateurish—especially Lucille Lewis as Rena which makes it hard to whip up any sympathy for her character. Bizarrely, the reunion scene between Rena and her brother feels uneasily like a lover's reunion, for which I blame the direction. The background music is wildly melodramatic, and between the cuts, the poor dialogue and the static pace, the story feels like it's being summarized instead of acted out. Interesting from a historic perspective, but even if a complete non-choppy print was found, I'm not sure I bother to revisit it. [TCM]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941)

This almost completely fictionalized version of the life of General George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) begins with his dandyish entrance as a cadet at West Point. At first he's mistaken for a visiting French officer, then he is made the butt of pranks by Ned Sharp (George Kennedy). Despite a number of infractions on his record, the cocky Custer graduates, meets cute with a general's niece, Libby (Olivia de Havilland), and thanks to some help from that General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet), winds up with a commission in the Army and fights at Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. Custer has a tendency to ignore orders, but he manages to come off heroically on the battlefield. After the war, he marries Libby but winds up bored with civilian life so Libby gets Scott to put him back in the Army and he is given command of Fort Lincoln in the Dakotas. There, he runs into Ned Sharp, operator of a trading post and a saloon at which the soldiers spend a little too much time. The men are whipped into shape, the saloon is closed, and Sharp connives with his father to pull off a plan to tarnish Custer's image. This leads to the threat of an Indian war and the infamous climax in which Custer's men are slaughtered by the Lakota at Little Big Horn, though here Custer is presented as deliberately sacrificing his life (and his men) to save another Army company. Though I know very little about Custer, this film is clearly best approached as a rousing Errol Flynn adventure movie rather than as a history lesson. As such, it works quite well. Flynn is in top form—especially in his early scenes as the naïve cadet—he's handsome and charming, but also smart and conflicted. De Havilland doesn't get a lot to do, but she too cuts a good looking figure. Kennedy is very good as a man who shifts from good guy to bad guy and back again. Standouts in the big supporting cast include Hattie McDaniel, Gene Lockhart, John Litel and Charley Grapewin. I was pleased to see the uncredited John Ridgely and Gig Young in bit parts. Director Raoul Walsh keeps the plot clear and the action exciting. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT (1938)

In 1937, the conflict between China and Japan intensifies when Japan bombs Peking (or Peiping as it was called back then), and a shipload of partying passengers on the way to Shanghai are advised to transfer to another ship and go back to San Francisco because their safety cannot be guaranteed. Del Forbes (George Sanders), playboy and adventurer, stays as he's going to be training Chinese pilots, but he advises the young and innocent Joyce Parker (June Lang) to leave—she first introduces herself as a journalist but admits that she's on board because she won a newspaper contest, and she hopes to write a series of articles about her trip. Before he leaves the ship, Forbes is called to the room of ailing notorious gun-runner Maurice Zabello, who asks Forbes to impersonate him in Shanghai to close a million dollar deal for a shipload of guns to be delivered to a Joseph Lang. When Forbes checks in as Zabello at a hotel in the International Settlement—a district shared and controlled by foreign governments—he runs into Joyce, who decided to stay though she has a hard time getting a room, and his old friend Wally Burton (Dick Baldwin), a cocky but charming newsreel reporter, who after an initial rough patch, bonds with Joyce. Forbes is also shot at by the exotic singer Lenore (Delores del Rio), who has a grudge against Zabello. After they get things straightened out, Forbes goes to collect the money from Lang (and his unsavory associate Murdock), but we see that a Mr. Silvers is keeping a close eye on the transaction, apparently planning to horn in at some point. Just as Forbes is about to deliver the money, he finds Zabello has died, and now he's stuck with a false identity, a lot of money, and no way to deliver the guns to Lang. He'll soon need all the help he can get from Joyce and Wally, but can he really trust Lenore? What about that sinisterly snoopy Silvers? And, worst of all, Japanese bombers are heading to Shanghai.

That's a lot of plot to cram into a 75 minute B-movie (albeit it high-B) and, surprisingly, there are still a few dead spots in the proceedings, but overall this is mild fun. The biggest problem is Sanders, who looks very young and dapper, but as I've noted before, is not an action hero, and when fisticuffs occur, it's plain that a double has stepped in for him. Still, he's fine in the first half. I'm not a big fan of Del Rio, but she's serviceable here. Baldwin (pictured above left with Del Rio) is fun in the buddy role—at times, he seems like Robert Cummings with an extra dose of testosterone—and Lang (pictured at right with George Sanders) does well as the naïve but plucky gal pal. She went on to a so-so career in B-films, though Baldwin, who seemed more promising, only made a handful of movies before going into real estate. The support is a notch above the usual: Leon Ames and John Carradine are good, Harold Huber is straightforward as Lang. The movie stops dead for two mediocre songs, one right at the beginning which is about a supposed dance craze called The Shrug. Key Luke has a crucial but thankless role as a doctor near the end of the film. The slow pace at the beginning is needed to get all the plotlines unspooled, and it does pick up in the home stretch. [YouTube]

Monday, September 19, 2016

THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (1938)

At a preview for producer Adolphe Menjou's new movie, the audience laughs at exotic actress Vera Zorina's death scene, which of course is not supposed to be funny. While filming Zorina's new movie on location, Menjou overhears local girl Andrea Leeds making fun of how unreal the love scene is. Menjou has a chat with her and asks her to come back to Hollywood with him to give him pointers in making the movie more real—he nicknames her Miss Humanity and hides her from the actors so she'll remain loyal to her own feelings and not be influenced by others. But she does meet singing diner cook Kenny Baker and finagles him a role in the movie. There are complications, some romantic (Menjou falls in love with Leeds while she's in love with Baker), some otherwise (during the filming of a jazz vs. classical Romeo & Juliet ballet number, Leeds suggests a happy ending), but finally everything works out the way Hollywood tells us it should.

This has a rather poor reputation, mostly because it tries to be an A-movie musical and comedy revue with a solid B-cast, but if you accept that limitation, it's not bad. Menjou seems like he doesn’t really want to be involved, but Baker (a B-level Dick Powell) and Leeds make a fairly appealing pair. Many of the musical numbers, in particular a Water Nymph ballet choreographed by George Balanchine, are close to MGM level. Several of the songs are originals by the Gershwins (this is the score George was working on when he died), but the best song, "Love Walked In," is spoiled by being sung over and over again throughout the film. The comic relief comes from the Ritz Brothers playing a band of animal handlers—I can generally take them or leave them, but they are fine here. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy have a little too much to do for my taste. The DVD color print is in beautiful shape. Entertaining if not quite up to the level of MGM or Fox musical extravaganzas. [DVD]

Thursday, September 15, 2016

DOOMSDAY MACHINE (1972)

Sometime in the near future, spies sneak into a Chinese installation and snap pictures of a doomsday machine which will go off soon and could lead to the destruction of the world (no explanation for why this would happen is offered, so I guess we just have to go with DR. STRANGELOVE to fill in the exposition). U.S. government officials see the pictures and decide to alter the plans for a space mission which is to establish a 2-year colony on Venus. They pull three men from the 7-man crew and replace them with three women. They also move the mission ahead by a few days. Not long after blast-off, the astronauts see the earth blow up thanks to a nuclear chain reaction triggered by the Doomsday Machine, and they realize that they are intended to be four Adams and three Eves once they get to Venus. Of course, tensions galore bloom on the ship: ship doctor Henry Wilcoxon and Russian cosmonaut Mala Powers are generally the voices of reason; studly Denny Miller, the commander, bonds with blond buxom Ruta Lee; the boyish but troubled Grant Williams has unrequited hots for young meteorologist Lorrie Scott; Bobby Van is the chipper comic relief—it would have been interesting if they had made him gay, but I couldn’t even find any suspicious subtext to harness for such a reading. Wilcoxon decides that they have enough power to get to Venus, but he's afraid they’ll all wind up sterile because of exposure to cosmic radiation, so they boost the engines to arrive faster, but that also (in one of the most ludicrous plot developments of all time) means they have to jettison four crew members—something about weight on the ship. But after Williams tries to rape Scott in the airlock and they accidentally open the airlock leading their eyeball-bleeding deaths, Miller decides they can all make it to Venus. Ultimately, Powers and Van decide to sacrifice themselves to go out and repair the craft, but they come across an empty Soviet craft and climb in that. So with all five heading to Venus, there'll be a happy ending in front of a cool Venusian setting, right? Wrong.

This movie feels like three different movies, and in fact, it is (kind of) at least two different movies. The bulk of it, with our seven astronauts, was filmed in 1967. Apparently it was supposed to end on Venus but money ran out and shooting was halted. The last reel was shot in 1972 without the benefit of the original cast; two uncredited actors play the parts of two of the astronauts from behind opaque space helmet visors (in the rest of the film, the helmets are clear), and their ultimate fate does not involve landing on Venus. Actually, the conclusion has weak echoes of 2001, and had the script been stronger, it might have been interesting, but as it stands, it's an unsatisfying cop-out.

The acting is all over the place, with many performances smacking of a made-for-TV effort. Best are old pro Wilcoxon, Ruta Lee and Mala Powers. Denny Miller (the blond Tarzan [12/3/02]) looks the part but puts forth little acting steam. Grant Williams (pictured to the right of Miller) suffers from playing an inconsistent character; at first, he's a bitchy little foot-stamper who you think could be likable if he got himself together, but when his aggressive tendencies emerge, he becomes a stock psycho—with better writing, he could have had a touch of Norman Bates in him. Bobby Van's humor quickly grows stale, but I give him points for trying. Look for Casey Kasem doing a fine job in a small role as a mission control worker. My very favorite thing about this movie, which made it worth watching: the psychedelic pastel lighting throughout the spaceship. [Streaming]

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

THE RISE OF CATHERINE THE GREAT (1934)

In Russia in 1745, Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is sulking at the royal hunting lodge because despite being heir to the throne—currently held by his aunt, the Empress Elisabeth (Flora Robson)—he feels mostly like he is "heir to a baby’s rattle and a box of toys" and does not want the arranged marriage he is being forced into with a German princess named Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner). She meets cute with Peter, not knowing who he is, and slowly he warms up to her, but they wind up playing cat and mouse games with each other, especially after Peter's valet Lecocq plants doubts in Peter's mind about Catherine's fidelity. She pretends to have many lovers (seventeen, she says, which the Empress overhears as "seventy") whereas Peter actually does take a mistress. Soon, with Peter treating Catherine shabbily and showing signs of madness, Catherine asks for a divorce, at which point Peter suddenly becomes interested in her again and they reconcile for a time. But even the Empress comes to see that Peter is not the person to rule Russia—on her deathbed, she confides to Catherine that she should have him killed and give the title to Catherine. And that's pretty much where the court intrigues lead—to Peter's downfall and Catherine's rise to the throne.

This same story was told by Josef von Sternberg in THE SCARLET EMPRESS—both versions are highly fictionalized but SCARLET has the advantage of Marlene Dietrich in the title role, and Sternberg's spectacular visual style. The sets and costumes in this film, directed by Paul Czinner, are lovely, but the leading lady, Elisabeth Bergner, is nowhere near Dietrich in terms of talent or charisma. She's OK but she can't really carry the movie. Luckily, her co-star, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., can carry what she can't. He plays Peter as a crafty, somewhat childish playboy, and makes his scenes come to life. (In SCARLET, Sam Jaffe played him as mentally damaged, which is apparently closer to the truth.) Flora Robson is also quite good as the Empress, and Gerald du Maurier, father of author Daphne, has a small role as Lecocq. He gets one of the better lines: when Peter asks if he's ever been married, Lecocq replies, "Not officially, but I've dabbled in it." Not a classic but worth a classic film fan's time. [DVD]

Friday, September 09, 2016

STRANGERS OF THE EVENING (1932)

It's a busy night at Chandler Undertaking Parlors. McNaughton, a hot shot political figure, is dead. He supposedly died in a car accident, horribly mutilated, but undertaker Joseph Chandler and a couple of cronies are trying to hide the real cause of death (a murder involving unsavory underworld figures). Young assistant Tommy is supposed to prep the body, but he's a bit skittish about it, so he heads out for a drink first. Meanwhile, Dr. Ray Everette, who has a lab in the morgue, is about to elope with Ruth Daniels against the wishes of her father. Mr. Daniels arrives at the lab, unseen, to have it out with Evertette. We see them in silhouette behind a door arguing. Next thing we know, Ray and Ruth have ducked out to get married, and two passersby find a dead body in the alley and carry it in to the undertaker's. When Tommy gets back, all alone in the morgue, the recently arrived body, assumed to be Mr. Daniels, rises up under the sheet and sends poor Tommy racing out of the room. Next morning, someone is buried in McNaughton's coffin, but Chandler isn't sure who. As a topper, a befuddled but amiable amnesiac shows up thinking he knows something about the various events of the night before. They manage to track him down to a boarding house where he was befriended by the scatterbrained landlady Sybil—who nicknamed him Snookie. So Sybil, Snookie, and Detective Brubacher work together (not always comfortably) to figure out who's dead and who's not.

There is promise here; the first 20 minutes or so (out of about 65) are amusing and atmospheric—though a lack of background music hurts. Unfortunately, once the narrative focuses on Sybil and the cop, the proceedings slow down and become distinctly blander. Zasu Pitts (Sybil) is an acquired taste—I can take her ditsy persona best in smaller doses, but she's a little too front and center here for me. Eugene Pallette (the cop) is similarly best when used sparingly (Friar Tuck in the Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD, the patriarch in MY MAN GODFREY), but he's a little less blustery here than he could be. I enjoyed Lucien Littlefield as Snooki, Theodore von Eltz as Ray, and Harold Waldridge as Tommy (the latter two pictured above), and part of me wishes the plot could have been carried through without bringing Pitts and Pallette into it at all. The plot machinations do get a bit complicated, and every five minutes or so, the plot gets summarized, and re-summarized, in newspaper headlines—which makes me wonder why one of the main characters wasn't a reporter. The timing and pace are a little off, which I blame on the direction by Bruce Humberstone, who knocked out some 30 B-movies between 1932 and 1950. His career peaks were probably the handful of Charlie Chan titles he did in the 30s and some 50s-era Tarzan films. If you don't mind the antics of Pitts and Pallette, or the slack Poverty Row production values, this might be up your alley. [Streaming] 

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956)

Perennial collegiate golden-boy Robert Wagner is dating co-ed and socialite Joanne Woodward, hoping to marry into her family. When she finds out she's pregnant, she wants to keep the baby and get married, but if they did in that situation, her judgmental father would disown her—and confound Wagner's plans for a future on Easy Street. He has his own family problem in the form of an overbearing mother who nags at him for his failure to make something of himself at the age of 25. Feeling trapped, Wagner decides to poison Woodward to get untangled from his mess, and when that doesn't work, they go downtown (supposedly to get a marriage license) and he takes her to the top of an office building (pictured) where he pushes her to her death. The police assume suicide and the father goes along, not wanting more publicity from further investigation, but the verdict does not sit well with Woodward's sister (Virginia Leith) who, a few months later, is dating Wagner, not realizing that he previously dated Woodward. However, it doesn't take too long for Leith to start putting two and two together—most importantly, noticing that Woodward had been wearing something old, new, borrowed and blue on the day of her death—and with some help from handsome young professor Jeffrey Hunter, she begins to investigate. At first, she suspects Robert Quarry, an ex-boyfriend, but he is found dead (again, apparently a suicide but actually murdered by Wagner). Leith agrees to marry Wagner, but what will happen when the light of suspicion  gets closer and closer to him? At times, Hitchcockian moments spring up that put me in mind of PSYCHO and VERTIGO (both of which came after this film), but there's something missing here. The film starts off well, but after Woodward's murder, the pace slackens a bit. Wagner and Woodward are the best actors; Leith and Hunter are blander (and possibly miscast), so the acting also feels a bit unbalanced. The bright skies of Tucson and the widescreen compositions work against a noir atmosphere, but the look of the movie is generally a plus. Also with Mary Astor as Wagner’s mother and George MacReady as Woodworth’s father. Interesting but mostly feels like a missed opportunity by director Gerd Oswald who eventually moved to television. Based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). [TCM]

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

BLONDE FEVER (1944)

Philip Dorn and Mary Astor are a married couple who run a fancy restaurant/club out in the Nevada woods not far from Reno—which means a lot of their clientele are people getting divorces. The couple is renowned for their restaurants, but there seems to be trouble brewing: Dorn, who has recently given up a gambling habit, is flirting with Gloria Grahame, a cigarette girl at the restaurant, even though she's dating young hothead Marshall Thompson who occasionally delivers guests to the club on a rickety motorcycle. Astor seems to view this with a certain worldly detachment for a time, but when Dorn wins a $40,000 lottery prize, Grahame doubles down on her gold-digging attempts, so Astor hires Thompson as a waiter, an act which unbalances the teetering triangle. Eventually a gun comes into play, but as this is a comedy, no worries, and no surprises about how things end up.

Based on a play by Ferenc Molnar (most famous for "Lillom" which was turned into the musical CAROUSEL), this is a small B-comedy delight. Unfortunately, the lead actor, Philip Dorn, almost sinks the whole thing: he's too old (he’s only five years older than Astor, but seems much older), too heavy-handed, and frankly, not very attractive. Someone like James Stewart or a B-lead such as James Ellison or James Craig might have made this movie truly memorable. But the rest of the cast is fun. A special credit card notes this as "introducing" both Grahame and Thompson (both pictured above), and the two are very good with sparkling chemistry. It was a surprise to see Thompson, who I think of as the game warden in the 60s TV series Daktari, as young and cute and gangly, a bit like a taller Mickey Rooney. Felix Bressart plays the friendly bartender, and an uncredited Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy have a very funny 30-second scene which seems to have been tossed in as an in-joke of some kind. At one point, Astor refers to Grahame as "a pretty little surrey with a fringe on top" which made me laugh as Grahame would go on to co-star in the movie version of OKLAHOMA (though as Ado Annie, not Laurey for whom the "Surrey" song is sung). I’d watch this one again. [TCM]

Thursday, September 01, 2016

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME (1967)

Time is hazy, so the narrator insists, and tends to tug us "toward all yesterdays as strongly as all the unborn tomorrows that stretch toward all eternity." With that to chew on, we find ourselves in a time travel lab with a handful of scientists who are feeling threatened by the new owner (Scott Brady) of the scientific company they work for. Through a portal, they can see and photograph the past 24 hours ago, and are now working on seeing 24 hours into the future. When Brady decides he wants to repurpose their lasers for military use, moderately studly scientist Anthony Eisley rebels and sets everything at full power, so the entire lab is sent hurtling into the far future, the year 6968 to be exact. While the young and attractive scientists in the present (Andy Davis [pictured below] and Tracy Olsen) try to find the lab workers "in whatever dimension of space or time they've gone," Eisley, Brady, and the gang wind up in the middle of a war between what's left of the earthlings who have mostly destroyed the world through nuclear war and pale aliens who have arrived from their dying planet. The chief alien spokesperson (Poupée Gamin—yes. that is the actress' name, pictured at right) tells Eisley to go back to 1967 and warn mankind not to experiment with laser weapons—which of course doesn't sit well with Brady. As the lab heads back through the space-time continuum, they see another object on a collision course with them and Brady destroys it. Overshooting their own time, they wind up back around 1,000,000 BC; Brady grabs up lots of volcanic gems and decides to leave without the other scientists, but [possible SPOILER, though this is easy to see coming] on his way, he and the lab are destroyed by, yep, the Brady that was heading back to the past. Somehow, Eisley and fellow scientist Gigi Perreau still wind up in the lab and make it back to 1967, but they soon discover that something has gone very wrong…

This, another of my summer sci-fi B-movie viewings, is an uncredited remake of THE TIME TRAVELERS, from the story to the largely one-set setting to the bizarre time-loop ending. Some of the plot details differ and this one seems to have been produced on a lower budget than the earlier film. The lingo used is particularly convoluted here, and sometimes the dialogue is delivered as though the actors saw it for the first time moments before the scene was shot. Use of stock footage during the chaotic time-travel scene is worthy of Ed Wood, especially an oddly long sequence of D-Day footage. But still this manages to be fun much of the time, sometimes in a bad-movie way. Brady, a tough-guy actor in lots of westerns, seems to think the whole enterprise is a waste of his time, and he can't even be bothered to tuck his shirt in during the last half of the movie—it may have been on purpose but it didn't seem in character. Eisley and Perreau are OK, and I found Andy Davis to be rather fetching, though all he has to do is stand at a desk and try to keep track of what year the lab is in. Lyle Waggoner plays an alien, though I did not recognize him. On balance, bad-movie fun. [Streaming]