Friday, May 22, 2015

ALLOTMENT WIVES (1945)

During World War II, a particularly heinous racket was being run in which an unscrupulous woman would marry a GI in a hurry while he was in town on a furlough only to collect his domestic allotment money from the government. Even worse, she would marry several of them and collect all their allotments, splitting the money with the head of the racket. As the war winds down and fraudulent claims are being racked up, an army colonel who was a journalist before the war (Paul Kelly) is assigned the task of breaking the ring. Kelly poses as a reporter working on a story about the racket and is present in a bar to see one of the "allotment wives" get busted as she is about to lower the boom on a young GI. While there, Kelly meets Kay Francis, beauty salon owner and manager of a canteen for soldiers; unknown to Kelly, Francis is also the head of the racket. She cozies up to Kelly to keep him off her trail, but has to dirty her hands to deal with some internal problems in her organization. Soon, however, another big problem comes her way: her teenage daughter (Teala Loring) shows up fresh from boarding school and ready for some GI flirting of her own. Finally, Francis has to deal with the arrival of an old friend (Gertrude Michael) who's not above trying a little blackmail so she won't spill the beans about Francis' business to her daughter.

Some consider this a film noir, and I guess I can see that Francis (pictured with Michael) come off as a moderately conflicted central character, but it doesn't really have the look or feel of a noir. Instead it's a cross between a gangster film and a "women’s melodrama" like IMITATION OF LIFE or MILDRED PIERCE (without the glossy look or showy acting of PIERCE). This is one of Francis' last movies; by this time, she was at the Poverty Row studio Monogram, a long way from her high glamor days at Warners. But, in an ahead-of-her-times move, she struck a deal there not just to act, but produce. Her Monogram films look a little shabby, and they could be better scripted, but she keeps her head high and remains worth watching. Another plus is the presence of Otto Kruger as her trusted associate. Paul Kelly, though nominally the hero, doesn't have much to do, getting largely shunted aside when the daughter shows up. The title conceit is interesting, but even that (which apparently did happen occasionally) is almost forgotten by the end. Mostly for Kay Francis fans. [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FOURTEEN HOURS (1951)

On St. Patrick's Day morning, bellboy Frank Faylen is on a room service call at the Hotel Rodney; he brings in the cart, then turns around to find the guest (Richard Basehart) gone: he's climbed out on the ledge and is threatening to jump. A lowly but friendly traffic cop (Paul Douglas)—Irish, of course—is the first one on the scene, followed by his brusque superior (Howard Da Silva) who is irritated when he finds out that Basehart will only talk to Douglas. As police, fire trucks, and crowds congregate below, Basehart, seemingly a mild-mannered fellow, won't say what the problem is, but soon a psychiatrist (Martin Gabel) theorizes that he has mommy issues, and when his parents show up, we can believe it: Mother (Agnes Moorehead) is shrill and overbearing, and Father (Robert Keith) is passive and a drinker. Gabel thinks that Mom didn't really want Basehart and unconsciously led him to dislike his father. They soon find out that Basehart has recently broken up with his lovely and wholesome girlfriend (Barbara Bel Geddes) after he told her he could never make her happy. As all these threads present themselves, the day turns into night and Basehart is still on the ledge.

First off, despite Fox's publicity, this is in no way, shape or form a film noir: most of it takes place in daylight, and almost every scene is set either on the ledge or in the hotel room. The hero, the cop, is not a dark and conflicted figure; Basehart, who might be seen as a kind of noir anti-hero, is not fleshed out at all—we never find out what his problem is, though of course now we can fill in the blanks that they couldn't make plainer back then: his mom has made him gay. Still, it's a nice, fairly taut thriller, given the lack of what we would call "action." At one point, Basehart is talked back into the room, but a crazy preacher scares him back out on the ledge. He almost loses his footing a couple of times, and the fairly abrupt ending is tense. Given he has little to work with, Basehart (pictured) makes the character memorable, and Douglas is very good as the average-Joe cop who becomes invested in saving Basehart. The first several minutes of the movie, as Faylen enters the room and Basehart winds up on the ledge, have no dialogue, and the first human sound is a woman's scream from the streets. There are some peripheral bystanders on the ground: Grace Kelly, in her first movie role, plays a woman heading to her lawyer to finalize a divorce; Jeffrey Hunter (in only his second credited role) and Debra Paget are two strangers who make a romantic connection during the hubhub. Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, this actually is based on a real incident from some years earlier. [FMC]

Saturday, May 16, 2015

ARE YOU LISTENING? (1932)

A strange little movie about the goings-on at radio station WBLA. The title comes from a top-of-the-hour time announcement: "At the tone, the time will be 9:00. Are you listening?" Bill (William Haines) is the glib, likeable writer of a popular soap opera. He's married to Alice (Karen Morley), a whining shrew who says she'll divorce him only when he has enough money to pay her the alimony she thinks she deserves. Meanwhile, he's seeing Laura (Madge Evans), an actress at the station. She lives with her sister Sally (Anita Page) who's a gold-digger; when Laura reprimands her for her late hours, she replies, "The bloom's got to be rubbed off sometime—might as well be when you’re young enough to enjoy the rubbing." After various tribulations, Bill gets fired because his writing shows that he's lost his sense of humor. Then on Christmas Eve, during a heated argument, Bill shoves a haranguing Alice away from him; she falls, smacks her head on a dresser, and dies. Not thinking rationally, Bill goes on the run with Laura.

Wait, that’s not all. In a parallel storyline, Laura and Sally's younger sister Honey (Joan Marsh), comes to town to stay, fully intending to join Sally in her gold-digging layabout ways, but she can't handle booze like Sally can and winds up getting smashed and falling for an older guy who two-times her. Honey ends up taking a job with a tabloid paper. To bring the two plotlines together, the paper's editor teams up with the radio station to sensationalize the story of Bill going on the lam by broadcasting constant warnings and updates over WBLA. This winds up being, not so much a crime story as a rambling melodrama about loosely connected characters. I'm not really complaining; it's different and I guess trying to figure out how it will all get tied up is one of the (mild) pleasures of the film. Haines, a silent movie star, was getting a little long in the tooth to be playing the carefree juvenile, but he's not bad here, coming off like he was heading for Gene Kelly territory, not as a dancer, but as a smiling charmer. I also quite liked Joan Marsh who adds some fizz as the naïve Honey. Neil Hamilton and Jean Hersholt also appear. Wallace Ford does his usual likeable fellow routine, and John Miljan is effective as the ruthless tabloid editor. I enjoyed the quirky novelty of having Christmas music playing in the background throughout the death of Alice and its aftermath. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

GO NAKED IN THE WORLD (1961)

This movie was recommended to me by a fan of bad movies, and let me tell you, this is indeed a special kind of bad. Anthony Francisosa returns from a stint in the military which he undertook specifically to get out from under the thumb of his old-fashioned Greek father (Ernest Borgnine), owner of a successful construction company who has his son's life all planned out for him. Unfortunately as soon as Tony returns, Ernie is all over him, expressing his parental love in a grotesque, smothering, almost physical way. Before he lets Tony in the house, he makes the family (mom and sexy sister) and the gardener literally get down on their knees and give thanks that Tony is back safe and sound—this over-the-top scene is played with a bit of a wink (the reactions of Tony and the gardener), but sadly, the rest of the movie's melodrama seems intended to be taken seriously. Ernie wants to pair Tony off with the daughter of a business associate, but during a night on the town, Tony meets the luscious Gina Lollobrigida and they hit it off, so much so that he spends the night. What he doesn't know is that Gina is a high-priced call girl who's been with practically every high roller in town, including his father. The rest of the movie charts the ups and downs in Tony and Gina's relationship to its ludicrous ending.

This is faux-Tennessee Williams or William Inge territory, a psychological dysfunctional family soap opera which might have worked better with a more subtle director. The screenplay is no great shakes, but the acting is terrible and I blame the director, Ranald MacDougall, because all these actors are capable of much better. Franciosa is too butch and hearty to be playing a maladjusted daddy's boy; Lollobrigida is all over the map, not knowing how to handle her character's mood swings. The mother (Nancy R. Pollock) is barely a character. And worst of all is Borgnine, who gives an obnoxiously operatic performance that never, for a moment, feels real, all shrieking and in-your-face; even when he calms down, he's grating, and I can't imagine why this man's family hadn't deserted him years ago. The ending is so bad and creepy; I want to talk about it but it really shouldn't be spoiled. Suffice to say it's a bizarre downer that I didn't quite see coming. Two quotes will give a good idea of the overheated dialogue. Ernie to Tony, about Gina's career: "Love is love, but we’re talkin' about rent"; Gina,when Tony asks her how many men she's had: "Why count the waves in the ocean?" Indeed. [TCM]

Monday, May 11, 2015

THE YOUNG RACERS (1963)

In Monaco at the Grand Prix, Mark Damon, a former racer turned writer, watches as cocky driver William Campbell wins the race. Campbell is brash, reckless and a womanizer, and soon Damon discovers the married Campbell has taken Damon's girlfriend as a mistress and then discarded her. Deciding to dig up dirt on Campbell for revenge, Damon gets a job on Campbell's crew by saying he's writing a biography, without mentioning that it will be an exposè. As Damon follows Campbell along the Grand Prix trial, from Belgium to France to England, he sees Campbell continue to seduce women while using his own brother Bob to hide his exploits from his wife. But he also soon comes to see that Campbell's arrogant surface hides a more sensitive side. For a Roger Corman B-movie, there are a couple of surprises in store, one good and one bad. The good one: it was filmed on location—supposedly to take advantage of Corman's vacation plans—and looks pretty decent, especially the racing scenes. The bad one: it's not really an action movie; it winds up being a talky, at times almost philosophical, movie about celebrity and psychology, but the screenplay and actors aren't quite up to the challenge of making an engrossing character study. So this winds up being stuck uncomfortably between two genres, not satisfying as either one. B-movie star Luana Anders and Shakespearean actor Patrick Magee (the man whose wife Alex rapes in CLOCKWORK ORANGE) have small roles. [TCM]

Friday, May 08, 2015

CODE TWO (1953)

This film follows three buddies as they make their way through training at the Los Angeles Police Academy. Ralph Meeker is the cocky, anti-authority guy who, even when he takes a wrong step and gets in trouble, doesn't learn his lesson—but we all know from WWII movies that there's something in him that will lead him to redemption; Jeff Richards, whose father was a cop killed in the line of duty, is handsome and quiet; Robert Horton has a stable married life, though Meeker and Richards become rivals for Horto'ns sister-in-law (Elaine Stewart). All three make it through the Academy, even though Meeker's superiors (Keenan Wynn and James Craig) disagree over his potential, and all three decide to apply for motorcycle duty—it's considered glamorous and exciting—but tragedy strikes when they clash with a gang of cattle smugglers and one of the three is killed, knocked unconscious and deliberately run over by a truck. The final confrontation between the bad guys and the surviving cops involves a chase in a slaughterhouse, a butcher knife, and a vat of quicklime.

This begins like a Dragnet-type police procedural with a long narrated segment on automobile accident statistics, but once the story kicks in, it becomes a traditional human-interest police drama. The acting is variable: Meeker can't do much different with his character as written, but he's compelling enough; Horton is a bit on the bland side—again, partly due to his bland character; Richards is good in a role that doesn’t give him much shading. Keenan Wynn is fine as the guy who puts his own reputation on the line for Meeker. As is par for the course, the women fade into the background, and the strongest connections are between the men. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Chuck Connors in a small role as a cop. Though predictable, the finale really is worth sticking around for. Pictured, left to right, are Meeker, Horton and Richards. [Warner Archive Instant]

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

BLANCHE FURY (1948)

In this Gothic melodrama, Blanche (Valerie Hobson) is a poor outcast relation of the Fury family, eking out a living as a paid companion to a cranky old lady when she is called back by her rich uncle to be governess to his widowed son's daughter Lavinia. Eventually, she marries Lawrence, the rather mild-mannered son (Michael Gough), though it's clearly more a convenient arrangement on both their parts than a love match. Blanche soon gets involved with the handsome but sullen estate manager Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger); he is the bastard son of another Fury but his relationship has never been recognized by the family. Philip has lawyers trying to track down evidence of an Italian wedding license, but when nothing comes up, he takes more decisive action, killing Lawrence (with the passive acquiescence of Blanche) and then marrying Blanche so he will be set up to be the legal master of the estate. Things are peachy for a while, but when Blanche suspects that Philip wants to kill Lavinia to get her out of the way of succession, she changes her mind about acquiescing. 

This may well be the first Technicolor Gothic film, and the main reasons for watching it are the sumptuous color and the lovely sets. Generally, the movie lacks tension and the acting is so-so. Hobson and Granger do have some chemistry, but it's allowed to dissipate in the last half-hour. There's a lot of plot in the movie, but still, not much seems to happen. The weirdest thing in the movie is the family legend of Fury's Ape which supposedly watches over the family. A carving of the ape's face is shown occasionally, but to no real effect. Not without interest, but not essential viewing. Pictured above are Hobson and Granger. [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

MEN ARE NOT GODS (1936)

Skeates, a London drama critic, dictates a scathing review of the actor Edmund Davey (Sebastian Shaw) in a new production of Othello; Edmund's wife Barbara (Gertrude Lawrence), who is playing Desdemona, arrives to try and stop the review from seeing print because Edmund is particularly sensitive right now. Skeates' secretary Ann (Miriam Hopkins) sneaks down and, knowing that Skeates never reads his own paper, changes the review. Unfortunately Edmund finds Skeates and thanks him for his praise, so Skeates, having discovered the switch, fires Ann. That night, Ann goes to see the play and falls for Edmund, going back to the play night after night; eventually Barbara invites Ann to dinner, and an attraction springs up between Ann and Edmund. Skeates lets her come back to work, and fellow reporter Tommy (Rex Harrison) tries to get Ann to date him, but she becomes obsessed with Edmund and he with her. They begin an affair; when Barbara finds out, she tries to get Ann to give him up, but Edmund, going a bit overboard, decides to kill Barbara for real during Desdemona's onstage death scene.

This sounds like a downbeat melodrama, and indeed the later movie A DOUBLE LIFE would use the same central premise: an actor begins to go insane during a run of Othello and acts out the climactic moment in real life. But surprisingly, despite the darkish turn this film takes, it's mostly played in a frothy comic tone; the juxtaposition of comedy and melodrama is the most interesting thing here. Hopkins is sprightly; Shaw is intense; it's fun to see the legendary stage performer Gertrude Lawrence—she only made a handful of movies—though she's fairly drab here, upstaged by Hopkins. Harrison has little to do beyond being basically a lanky supporting juvenile. The best scene might be one in which an artist tries to blackmail Barbara by making her buy a painting of Ann and Edmund canoodling in the park, but doesn't get past Barbara’s intimidating maid (Laura Smithson). The title is a line from Othello. Interesting if not essential. Pictured, from left to right, are Lawrence, Shaw and Hopkins. [Criterion streaming]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

DARK JOURNEY (1937)

During World War I, Vivien Leigh is a designer living in Sweden who, as a citizen from a neutral country, can travel back and forth between Stockholm and Paris regularly on business. But actually she's a spy, passing military secrets, cleverly stitched inside of clothes, on to the Germans. At a nightclub, Conrad Veidt, a former German officer, is pulling a parlor trick in which he predicts what women will say after he kisses them. Leigh exposes his secret and the two begin flirting, to the chagrin of her British escort (Anthony Bushell). Then the plot twists: it turns out that Leigh is actually working for the French, feeding misinformation to her German bosses, and her last case is to find out who the head of the German Secret Service Section 8 is. And Veidt is, of course, the head of Section 8, and he has been charged with finding the double agent. Of course, this strains their growing relationship, to say the least. Some reviewers find the plotlines here a bit tangled, perhaps because Leigh and Veidt defy the typical wartime propaganda stereotypes; he's quite human for a German soldier and she's presented as wavering in her duty when she realizes she will have to expose Veidt. Both actors are fine, have good chemistry, and pretty much carry the film. An enjoyable spy romance which, even if it is ultimately predictable, is satisfying. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CONGO MAISIE (1940)

Chorus girl Maisie Ravier (Ann Sothern) slips out of her hotel room in a West African town without paying and sneaks aboard a rickety boat to Lagos where a job (supposedly) awaits. She tries to hide in the cabin of Michael Shane (John Carroll), a former rubber plantation doctor who became disillusioned and now runs a plantation, but he kicks her out and puts her at the mercy of the skeevy captain. But halfway down the river, the boiler room explodes and Shane reluctantly takes Maisie with him to a nearby plantation's medical office, coincidentally, the one where he used to work. The current doctor, McWade, lets them stay on a while, but the two soon realize they've stepped into a couple of sticky situations. For one, McWade is spending too much time on research and not enough time with his wife, Kay, who responds a little too freely to Shane's flirtations. For another, McWade is fighting the attitudes of several natives, led by a gaggle of witch doctors, who don't trust Western medicine. At the climax, a crowd of rebellious natives arrives at the doctor's home, ready to carry him off for a sacrifice, until Maisie's quick thinking saves the day.

This is the second in a series of B-movies from MGM (which means they're much glossier than the average B-film) about the adventures of Maisie, a character created by writer Wilson Collison. The first film, set on a dude ranch, has plot points similar to this film, which is itself based (theoretically) on a Collison novel called Congo Landing but clearly harks back to a Collison play called Red Dust which was made into a classic 1932 movie with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. (I hope I have all these details right—the trail of credits is a bit confusing.) Sothern makes this worth seeing, doing a fine job as a brassy dame with a heart of gold. Because these were made under the Production Code, Maisie can't be as morally loose as she probably was in the original novel, but Sothern manages to make her both wholesome and sexy. Carroll, the B-movie Clark Gable, is one of my favorite 40s supporting actors and he's perfect as a Gable stand-in. Shepperd Strudwick and Rita Johnson are fine as the distracted doctor and his dying-to-be-unfaithful wife. Ann Sothern's performance of "St. Louis Woman" at the climax is worth the wait. Fun line: Maisie tells a sailor that in her stage act she was billed as a little girl with a big harp. He says, "Oh, you played with an Irishman." She replies, "Maybe that's what the act needed." [TCM]