Wednesday, February 10, 2016

CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955)

On a space station called the Wheel (because that's what it looks like), General Merritt (Walter Brooke) is the head of a group of men who are building—and will later ride on—a spaceship to the moon. They've been up there away from Earth and family for a year and some of them are getting antsy, especially the general's son Barney (Eric Fleming) who goes over his dad's head to get a transfer off the Wheel. But after the team gets orders to head to Mars instead, in order to find new resources for an Earth that is running out of steam, Barney changes his mind and stays on. The gruff Irish Mahoney is too old to get a slot on the ship, but he stows away. The others are a working-class lug from Brooklyn, a Japanese botanist, and a Slavic scientist. They get to Mars successfully, but suddenly the general gets an attack of religious fundamentalism, questions the appropriateness of the entire enterprise, and they wind up crash-landed and at odds with each other.

This may not have quite been an "A" movie but in looks it's certainly heads and shoulders above the average sci-fi film of the era; it avoids coming off like a kiddie matinee flick and tries to tackle adult ideas. Unfortunately, it fumbles the biggest idea: is off-Earth exploration incompatible with being a Christian? The philosophical quandary comes up with no warning halfway through the movie and is dispensed with fairly quickly—it feels like during filming, the director, Byron Haskin, decided he needed one more point of conflict (aside from the generation gap, family, and ageism) and threw in the religious angle, then almost as quickly decided to abandon it. Actually, it's not fully abandoned: in a strange scene near the end, when the astronauts desperately need water, it snows—on Christmas morning. I wonder if Stanley Kubrick saw this, as a handful of images—the movement of vehicles in space, a body floating toward the sun—seem to have influenced the look of 2001. The acting is about par for the course; Brooke, Fleming and Benson Fong as the botanist are fine, but the guy from Brooklyn (Phil Foster) really grates on the nerves. William Hopper plays a scientist on the Wheel, and we see Rosemary Clooney do a song-and-dance number which the astronauts watch on a big TV screen. Produced by George Pal (WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE). Worth seeing for its sets and effects, though you will have to put up with some weak dialogue. [Paramount Vault on YouTube]

Monday, February 08, 2016

THREE FACES EAST (1930)

During World War I, soldier Valdar (Erich von Stroheim) gets a medal from the Belgian king for services rendered; when he leaves the Army, he winds up as a trusted butler to the improbably named British Navy bigshot Sir Winston Chamberlain. At the same time, nurse Frances Hawtree (Constance Bennett), working for the British in France, is actually a German agent. Her new assignment: go to London, infiltrate the home of Sir Chamberlain, find important naval secrets, and pass them on to master spy Blecher. One of Chamberlain's sons recently died at the front and Frances poses as his grieving fiancée; she is accepted into the household with open arms by everyone except the dead man's brother Arthur (Anthony Bushell) who knows that his brother already had a fiancée that the rest of the family didn’t know about. It turns out that Valdar is a German spy and Frances' contact (a Muslim prayer with the phrase "three faces east" is the password they exchange). He flirts with her a bit—in a very Prussian Von-Stroheim way—but won't let her meet Blecher. Just as Frances begins pulling off her plan, Yates, another house guest, gets suspicious of her. Soon, we're not quite sure who is on what side: could either Frances or Valdar (or both) be double agents? Is Yates what he seems to be? And who is Blecher?

I've discovered that were lots of WWI spy movies made in the early 30s, perhaps out of an odd sense of nostalgia or an uneasy feeling about the future—most of these movies could have been made 10 years later as WWII spy stories without much change in plot or even dialogue.  This one tries to be a little trickier than the average, but if you know your movie stars of the era, you’ll know the outcome. Still, I appreciated the little twists and turns of the plot here, though I wish someone besides the somewhat one-note Constance Bennett had the lead role. Stroheim is fun; his character is a little warmer than usual—he flirts with Bennett and even gets to smile in a couple of scenes. I liked him enough that [Spoiler alert:] I wished he'd be able to get away scot-free, though he doesn't. Bushell is fine, and William Courtenay has a couple of good moments as Yates. One standout scene that achieves good tension involves Bennett sneaking around at night, breaking into a safe, then getting her high-heel shoe stuck in a floor grate. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A CHALLENGE FOR ROBIN HOOD (1967)

Roger de Courtney (Peter Blythe) is known for his cruelty—we see him shoot and kill a Norman man, right in front of his young son, for hunting royal deer. John, Roger's father, leaves his estate to be split between the wicked Roger and his somewhat less wicked brother Henry, but with his dying breath, John adds their goodhearted cousin Robin (Barrie Ingram) as an heir. This infuriates Roger who, in short order, murders Henry and frames Robin for the crime. Robin goes on the run, along with the sympathetic Friar Tuck, hiding in Sherwood Forest, and is accepted into a group of rebel Saxons who, get this, rob from the rich (the decadent landowners) and give to the (overtaxed) poor. Soon Robin is leading the band and eventually sets off on a mission to rescue Lady Marian, being held prisoner by Roger and the Sherriff of Nottingham.

I must admit I sometimes wonder why filmmakers keep doing Robin Hood stories when the 1939 Errol Flynn ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is so darned good. Hammer Films, usually known for horror movies, made the occasional adventure film and this was not their first time around with Robin and his Merry Men; Hammer made two previous versions in 1954 and 1960, the latter (SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST) featuring Richard Greene who played Robin Hood on TV for several seasons. This version would seem custom made for kids, though it lacks, until the end, the rousing swashbuckling that younger viewers might like. Ingram is hopelessly miscast as Robin—he's not particularly handsome or charming or charismatic. In fact, two other actors in the cast—Leon Greene who plays the hulking Little John, and Eric Flynn who is Alan-a-Dale, might have been more effective in the lead role. Peter Blythe is good as the evil Roger who, as he seems to lose his grasp on reality, recalls Vincent Price as Prospero in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. At one point, Alan starts strumming a lute and a production number almost breaks out, putting me in mind of the "Brave Sir Robin" song in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Once this movie gets going, it's OK, but it never really overcomes the weakness of its leading man. Pictured above are Will Scarlet (Douglas Mitchell), Alan-a-Dale, Little John and Robin Hood. [TCM]

Monday, February 01, 2016

TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE (1950)

At the turn of the (20th) century, the Robinson family heads off for two weeks at a Catskills resort called Kissamee. There's Father (Louis Calhern), Mother (Ann Harding), two young boys, and two girls: the younger Melba (Debbie Reynolds) and her 17-year-old sister Patti (Jane Powell). Melba is excited about meeting up again with Billy (Carlton Carpenter), the son of the resort manager, but Billy only has eyes for Patti. Unfortunately, Patti only has eyes for Demi (Ricardo Montalban), a handsome Cuban visiting the resort for the first time. And, of course, Demi seems to be enthralled by a visiting starlet (Phyllis Kirk). This romantic roundelay is played out in tedious detail, with the climax occurring when Patti's dad finally buys her a corset so she can feel like a grown-up. Yes, this entire movie hinges on whether or not Patti will get to wear a corset.

This seems to have been an attempt by MGM at making another MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, and it just goes to show you how difficult it is to set out to make a masterpiece. This has a decent cast—though Jane Powell, fun as she is, is no Judy Garland—and colorful sets and costumes, but it just lies there on the screen with everyone trying way too hard to breathe life into the flaccid story. When you remember that ST. LOUIS hinged on whether or not the Smith family would move to New York, it might not seem such a far stretch to hope that an equally entertaining movie could spring from the story of whether or not Jane Powell will get a corset. But it's not to be. Powell is part of the problem, or more to the point, her character is. Patti is whiny, obnoxious, self-defeating,  and very hard to care about. By the halfway point, I was ready for her to drown in the lake and let the movie focus on the much more appealing Debbie Reynolds. In fact, the high point of the movie is the song "Aba Daba Honeymoon," performed by Reynolds and the lanky, quirkily cute Carlton Carpenter. Most of Powell's songs are operatic in style and uninteresting. There's a cute scene of all the camp kids singing together—which is directly reminiscent of scenes in ST. LOUIS—and a fun moment when a whole lot of fireworks hidden under a bed go off by accident. Otherwise, this is eminently skipable; you can see most of the "Aba Daba Honeymoon" number in the compilation movie THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. [TCM]

Friday, January 29, 2016

SLIGHTLY FRENCH (1949)

This film opens on what looks like a Parisan wharf with a lady of the evening and her pals dancing with various men until a voice yells, "Cut!" and we discover we're on a movie set. Tyrannical director John Gayle (Don Ameche) winds up working his French leading lady right into a nervous collapse, and when she announces that she's taking a six-month rest cure, JB, the studio boss, fires John and halts production, which bothers producer Doug Hyde (Willard Parker) who is also John's close friend. While at a carnival with his assistant Louisa (Janis Carter)—who is also his sister—John is impressed by a young performer he sees taking on the roles of Brazilian, Chinese and French dancers; when he visits her in her dressing area, he finds out that she's actually a rough-edged Brooklyn girl named Mary O'Leary (Dorothy Lamour). Soon, a plan develops: John will train Mary to take over the movie role, and he and Doug will pass her off as Rochelle, a legitimately French entertainer, to try and get JB to rehire John and finish the picture with "Rochelle" in the lead. But, of course, complications ensue: John falls in love with Mary, who finds him obnoxious, and she seems to be falling for Doug. Meanwhile John is still a hardass on the set and JB might still fire him. Louisa is the only one who really knows what’s going on.

This is an example of a rare breed: a classic-era musical from Columbia Pictures. And that's its main problem: there's no one thing that's really wrong with it, but it wasn't made by MGM, Warner Brothers or Fox, and is missing that extra intangible something that those studios' musicals had. The opening, the Paris street number, is fun and feels like a parody of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, except that movie wasn't made until two years later. The songs are a notch above the off-brand musicals of the time, particularly the 30s standard "Let’s Fall in Love" by Harold Arlen. Until the plot stalls at about the one-hour mark, things move along nicely, and there are some cute lines: "He'll take it as hard as a Wisconsin winter"; "Sure, I'm as gay as May" (a reference, of course, to being happy); Louisa invents a new word, "Insinuenndo."

The bland acting doesn't help. In an MGM musical, the acting might not be much better, but you’d be distracted by the color and the general gloss of the production. This is in black & white and the general look is, well, not glossy, though it doesn't look cheap, either. I'm not a big fan of Lamour—she's serviceable here and does do a good job with all the accents she has to do. Ameche is awfully one-note as the jackass director. The supporting players are better: Willard Parker makes Doug such a nice guy, I was rooting for him to win the girl; I love Janis Carter and once again, I wish she was onscreen more often. Overall, it’s fun if not quite bubbly; I kept wanting Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the leads. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE MONSTER WALKS (1932)

This Poverty Row thriller begins quite nicely: on a stormy night, in a room lit only by candles, a man and woman stand at the deathbed of Dr. Philip Earlton. The woman, Emma, pulls the sheet up over his face and suddenly a sharp shriek rings out from outside the room. The movie pretty much goes downhill from there, becoming a tepid old dark house thriller with the added attraction of an ape in the basement. It turns out that the shriek came from Yogi the ape, the devoted pet of the dead man, who, according to Emma, has sensed that his master has died. Others in the house include the dead man's wheelchair-bound brother Robert; Emma and her son Hanns, both servants in the house; Philip's daughter Ruth who is the heir—though the estate goes to Robert in the event of her death; and Ted Clayton, Ruth's handsome (B-movie handsome, that is) boyfriend. Ruth feels unsettled in the house, and with good reason: someone seems to be out to kill her, and it might be Yogi, who apparently never liked her. At one point, she wakes up to an ape hand reaching out from behind her bed trying to strangle her. Others try to tell her that she was probably just having a nightmare, but faithful housekeeper Emma agrees to switch rooms with her, and the next morning, Emma is found dead. Who exactly is this monster who walks?

There's not a lot to recommend this film except to die-hard fans of early horror/mystery films. The best thing, aside from the atmosphere of the first 10 minutes, is the performance of Mischa Auer as Hanns, a character who remains mysterious until the climax—his violin-playing, usually of Brahms' Lullaby, is a plotpoint. He's also the only actor who gets to express anything resembling real emotion, and Auer (pictured with Martha Mattox as Emma )does a fine job. Sheldon Lewis as Robert is clearly channeling Lionel Barrymore, which does him no favors, and Rex Lease (who appeared in dozens—maybe hundreds—of B-westerns, rarely in a starring role) as the mildly heroic Ted is a big zero. For a change, the ape is real, not a guy in a suit, though he's also not very scary, basically confined to jumping and dancing in a small cage. Willie Best plays the stereotyped scared-witless black servant; the less said, the better. Much of the dialogue is presented in a ponderous fashion, as though that delivery alone will create tension—it doesn't. There is a little fun to be had with the secret passages and such, but mostly this is a bland movie that might be good only as a curtain-raiser for a better thriller, like THE CAT AND THE CANARY. [YouTube]

Monday, January 25, 2016

ROMAN SCANDALS (1933)

I would guess this is one of the earliest sound films to use the device of a dream to trigger a bizarre plot. In the small town of New Rome, Eddie Cantor is expelled from town for taking the side of some impoverished shanty-town folks against crooked politicians. While trekking off into exile, he falls asleep and dreams he's in ancient Rome. A slave, he is sold to David Manners, a good-natured sort who is in love with Gloria Stuart. The three wind up fighting corruption in Rome, personified by Edward Arnold (always a reliable figure of corruption) and Verree Teasdale as the Emperor and Empress. There are several pleasures in this pre-Code musical; some are the one-liners sprkinled throughout. When Cantor tells Arnold about Mickey and Minnie Mouse, he replies with incredulity, "A mouse has a sweetheart?" When Cantor is surrounded by hungry lions, he says he'd like to feed them and a young woman replies, "You will!" Some strange Busby Berkeley production numbers enliven the proceedings: Cantor, in blackface, sings "Keep Young and Beautiful" (the same song Annie Lennox resurrected on her first solo album Diva) in a sprawling beauty spa; Ruth Etting (the singer Doris Day portrayed in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME) sings "No More Love" surrounded by busty Goldywn Girls, in chains and naked except for their long, long Barbie doll hair strategically swirled around their torsos. Another song is called "Put a Tax on Love." When Cantor (pictured at right between two guards) wakes up from his dream, he manages to foil the real-world villains of New Rome, and the final number is a utopian song that finds all the poor people living communally in the streets of the town. Billy Barty has a bit part as a shrunken Eddie Cantor, and Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard are among the Goldwyn Girls—though I didn’t catch them. [DVD]

Thursday, January 21, 2016

ATROCITIES OF THE ORIENT (1948)

This film, a post-war propaganda piece about the outrages committed by the Japanese in the Philippines, was apparently released under this title in 1959 as an "adult" exploitation movie, pieced together from two 1948 films, BEAST OF THE EAST and OUTRAGES OF THE ORIENT. I could not find authoritative proof about the mixing of the two movies, but that would help explain why this film's plot is hard to follow (in addition to the poor shape of the print). We begin on Luzon as peaceful Filipinos go about their lives, singing and engaging in community rituals. But the Japanese invade, launching brutal attacks on the ground and in the air against the native Filipino population. The movie follows two brothers, Carlos and Antonio, both soldiers in the resistance effort being carried out in the summer of 1944. Carlos hates his brother for marrying the woman he loved, but we have seen Antonio shoot her dead just as the Japanese break into her house so she won't have to undergo the rape and torture in which the Japanese soldiers indulge. Carlos's men are ordered by their superiors to surrender but they refuse, and Carlos sends three volunteers to clean out a Japanese sniper nest. They do, but they also die in the effort. Eventually, the Japanese force Carlos and his men to surrender. Meanwhile, Antonio's men meet up with another division, led by a woman, Colonel Eve. He has her doubts about Eve's leadership, but when he sees her kill a soldier whose careless behavior led to the deaths of other men, he not only respects her but falls in love with her. Eventually, Allied troops arrive and liberate the island.

The title promises one of those grindhouse exploitation movies with lots of gore and a little nudity. This one does feature rape, beheading, bayoneting, and massacres, but not in graphic fashion. One brief scene of bare-breasted women covering themselves with their arms as they run away from Japanese soldiers seems like it was spliced in from another source. And speaking of splices, this print is crazy with odd cuts and jolting edits, so this is certainly not the film that moviegoers would have seen in theaters. The dialogue, in English and spoken by Filipino actors, is occasionally hard to decipher. There is also some weird comic relief, provided mostly by a couple of bumbling soldiers. A scene in which a Japanese solider is disciplined by his commanding officer for trying to molest a Filipino nurse is out-and-out slapstick, and completely wrong tonally. But then, there isn't much right about this movie. One can see the germ of an interesting storyline—and the feminist twist involving Colonel Eve was quite unexpected—but both the scripting and the direction seem amateurish, with the acting only a slight notch above. Frankly this would have been more interesting with a little less restraint. Why go for the grindhouse if you've got the equivalent of a PG movie? [Streaming]

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

AMONG THE MISSING (1934)

Mr. Abbot files a missing persons report about his Aunt Martha (Henrietta Crosman) who disappeared just before she was supposed to finalize the sale of her house, which she was being forced into by her nephew. Meanwhile, we see Martha sitting on a park bench with her few belongings, wondering where to spend the night when she winds up befriending Tommy, a young man (Richard Cromwell) who is looking for a lost puppy. Actually, Tommy is the junior member of a trio of thieves led by Gordon (Arthur Hohl), owner of an antique shop. Tommy works at Gordon's store as a cover, and reluctantly takes Martha to the shop so she can spend the night in the room in the back. When the cops come nosing around, Gordon sees that the presence of a granny-figure defuses suspicion, so he hires her as a housekeeper. Soon, Martha realizes that Tommy is caught up in criminal behavior—she even supplies him with an alibi when the cops arrive in the middle of the night chasing the thieves—and she tries, with the help of Judy, a young woman who lives nearby and who is sweet on Tommy, to get him to quit the gang. He slowly softens toward Martha, but decides he needs to participate in one last job, and of course, things go wrong and Martha herself winds up taking the rap for the jewel robbery. Will Tommy step up and be a man?

This is an example of a genre I call the Grandma movie; seemingly quite popular in the 30s, the main character was, if not an actual grandmother, then a kindly older woman—aunt, maid, spinster—who was able to fix family problems or solve crimes or play matchmaker (which reminds me that sometimes it was a male character, as in a number of mid-30s movies with George Arliss). Actresses such as Louise Dressler, May Robson, Edna May Oliver and Helen Lowell starred in such films—one example is EMMA with Dressler and Richard Cromwell—and they are reminders of a time when older actresses could still have commercial mainstream movies built around them. This one is fairly run-of-the-mill. Crosman is OK as Aunt Martha, though her character is given virtually no backstory except that she's run away from her family, and that makes her less compelling as a lead character. Cromwell (pictured with Crosman) is also OK; he always looks rather petulant which makes it hard to care about him even as we sense that we're supposed to. Arthur Hohl, a character actor who usually hovered in the background, winds up being the most interesting character almost by default. The look of the movie, lots of shadows and some striking lighting, might attract noir fans. As a donut lover, I appreciated a running bit about Crosman making homemade donuts which Cromwell ignores at first until he begins to warm up to the old lady. [TCM]

Friday, January 15, 2016

CAPTURED IN CHINATOWN (1935)

A long-simmering feud between the Wong and Ling families erupts in violence in Chinatown, but when Tom Wong and Joy Ling declare their love for each (to quote a classic 50's song, just like Romeo and Juliet), the families decide to meet to make peace. It is agreed that Tom will give Joy a valuable family necklace to seal the deal, but two fences get small-time crook Zamboni to infiltrate the house where the peace ceremony is taking place. Dressed in a Chinese robe, he steals the necklace, stabbing Tom while he makes his getaway, and when it is assumed that a Ling family member was behind the theft, the feud is back on.

That is the interesting 20 minutes of this film, with nice B-movie atmosphere and characters we care about. The rest of the film focuses on reporter Bob Martin, his gal pal and fellow reporter Ann Martin, and his trusty sidekick Tarzan the Police Dog. This is one of three Poverty Row movies that starred Tarzan, a German shepherd. The dog is well trained, and definitely more appealing the two lead actors, Charles Delaney (who is flat out terrible) and Marion Shilling (who is just boring). There's a lot of clomping around by police, reporters, and members of the Wong and Ling families before the resolution which, of course, results in the restoration of the necklace and the uniting of the clans. Though the dog performs admirably (selling newspapers on the street, delivering messages and guns, fighting villains), most of the actors do not, nor did the writers. Someone named Robert Walker plays one of the bad guys, but he's no relation to the better known Robert Walker of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN fame. Interestingly enough for the era, most of the Chinese characters are actually played by Chinese actors. [Streaming]