Thursday, September 18, 2014

THE STEEL HELMET (1951)

On a battlefield in Korea strewn with dead soldiers with their hands tied behind them, Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is still alive, crawling on his belly and trying to get free. A figure with a gun approaches so Zack plays dead, but it turns out to be a 12-year-old boy (William Chun) who unties him. Zack calls him a "gook," and the boy, a war orphan, politely corrects him by saying he's South Korean, and soon, despite Zack's gruff exterior, the two have bonded and Zack nicknames him Short Round. Wandering through the foggy woods, the two eventually bond with Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic, and Tanaka (Richard Loo), a Japanese-American soldier. Zack most certainly does not bond with Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie), a cocky soldier whom Zack knows and doesn't respect, though Zack and his men wind up traveling with Driscoll's small regiment. They stop at an abandoned Buddhist temple near the front to set up a communications post, and the rest of the film is set at the temple as the men argue, become friendly, battle a sniper hiding in the temple, and eventually try to hold off dozens of attacking North Koreans.

This is widely acknowledged as the first Korean War movie, made and released during the first year of the conflict. It's not Sam Fuller’s first film as director, but it is the first one that feels like a Fuller movie, and though perhaps not as full of battlefield action as some may like, it is nevertheless practically an archetypal modern war film with attention paid to both the physical and mental pains of warfare. Many WWII movies paid lip service to the multicultural makeup of the men in battle, but in this one, the culture clashes feels much more central to the film, without artificially weighing down the narrative. The point that African-Americans were still isolated back home is made but not intrusively, and the Japanese internment camps in the US are not ignored. Evans is excellent as Zack, who is mostly a hard-boiled, cynical guy whom we see soften a bit until the end when he comes dangerously close to having a full-fledged breakdown. Edwards is just as good as the quiet, stoic Thompson. Other cast standouts include Richard Monahan as a young guy who went bald in his youth and will try anything to grow hair, Sid Melton as a private who only talks to his burro (and only in whispers), and Robert Hutton as a former conscientious objector. I've heard that Spielberg used the "Short Round" name in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM as a tribute to Fuller, and this explains the name: Zack's helmet has a hole in it due to a defective bullet going into his helmet, pinging around and exiting without hurting him; "short round" is a term for such bullets. The movie was shot on a low budget but between the fog and the temple set, it looks great. Highly recommended. [Criterion streaming]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

TOPAZE (1933)

The bratty son of the rich baron De La Tour complains that his teacher, Professor Topaze (John Barrymore), is against rich people and is teaching communism. Actually, Topaze is a stuffy but well-meaning teacher who tries to teach lessons of hard work and honesty, but when he refuses to change the boy's grade, the baron gets him fired. Meanwhile, the baron is about to unveil a new product, a sparkling water that, the advertising claims, has special health benefits even though it's just carbonated water. The inventor of the water quits when he finds out that the baron wants to swindle the public, so La Tour hires the newly unemployed and naïve Topaze to front for the product, calling it Sparkling Topaze. When he eventually finds out that he's been duped, Topaze has a nightmare vision of being surrounded by giant bottles of the water, and seeing huge neon signs proclaiming, "Topaze is a thief!" To placate him, the baron arranges for Topaze to receive the Academic Palms, a great state prize, and soon Topaze seems to be converted to the baron's lifestyle, lording his new fame over everyone and blackmailing the baron into subservience. He even attracts the attentions of the baron's young mistress (Myrna Loy, pictured with Barrymore). But when he is asked to speak at his old school, he struggles between his new outlook on life and his former innocent morality.

I've never seen Barrymore as a great talent, but he's very good here, doing a nice job playing against type in the first half as a passive, idealistic academic, then turning into a kind of Mr. Hyde character later. Loy is also fine as the mistress to both men; the opening scene, a pre-Code classic, shows Loy and the baron (Reginald Mason) enjoying a cozy winter night together—we assume they are married until he gets up and decides it's time to go home to the wife. The film’s satirical swipes at big business and advertising still sting. [TCM]

Friday, September 12, 2014

FLIGHT TO MARS (1951)

This is one of the earliest of the 50’s "docudrama" science-fiction space travel films, with the first half chronicling in a relatively realistic fashion a trip to Mars, albeit by five people who wear street clothes and smoke cigarettes in the spaceship. There's a love triangle between engineer Arthur Franz, his longtime assistant Virginia Huston, and cocky reporter Cameron Mitchell, and scientist John Litel spends a fair amount of the trip philosophizing. Once they get to the red planet, the film turns as fanciful as Jules Verne or Flash Gordon when they discover friendly Martians (who look just like earthlings) dressed in colorful Teletubby outfits. Our crew is taken to the large underground city where the population thrives thanks to a mineral (which, unknown to the earthlings, is now in short supply, threatening the Martians continued survival as the surface is too inhospitable for long-term living). The Martians agree to help the earthlings fix their damaged ship so they can return home, but they secretly plot to take the ship over for themselves and move their population to Earth. The mini-skirted Alita (Marguerite Chapman, pictured with Franz) falls in love with Franz (leaving Huston and Mitchell free to flirt to their hearts' desires), tells him about the Martians' plans, and helps the earthlings try to escape. The best thing about this B-movie from Monogram is the color, which really helps hide the low budget; the planet and the city look good, though the scenes of the rocket in space and the meteor shower they go through look very primitive. The Martian women dress like catwomen, in poiny-shouldered tops and fabulous shoes that are a cross between a high-heel and a go-go boot. The name Alita is a nod to a famous silent Russian film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, which was itself based on a work by Leo Tolstoy, which means one could make a "six degrees" thing between Tolstoy and the Teletubbies. [DVD]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

HIAWATHA (1952)

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea Water,… well, this doesn't quite follow the Longfellow poem. In fact, in doing a little research after watching this movie, I found that Longfellow's Hiawatha was not based on the historical Hiawatha at all. It also seems likely that the Hiawatha in this movie (played by Vince Edwards) isn't much like the real person either, which is par for Hollywood historical films. This begins with hunky Hiawatha leading a band of Ojibway hunters through the woods where they come upon a group of Dakota hunters who seem to be lost. Though the various tribes don't get along, Hiawatha approaches the men peacefully, but his hot-headed fellow hunter Pau PukKeewis (Keith Larsen) is of the "shoot first" school and a skirmish breaks out. This triggers a debate among the Ojibway, who have remained isolated for some time, as to whether they should try to make peaceful contact with the Dakota and the Illinois. The discussion gets heated, and Pau PukKeewis implies that Hiawatha is not of pure Ojibway blood (of course, this eventually leads to the revelation that, indeed, his father was a Dakota). On a mission of peace, Hiawatha winds up attacked by a bear and his life is saved by Lakku of the Dakota tribe. As he recovers, he and Lakku's daughter Minnehaha fall in love and he takes her back to his tribe as his wife, which doesn't sit well with Pau PukKeewis and the more warlike men. That fall, the harvest is poor and some blame Minnehaha; when an Ojibway man is killed by a Dakota arrow, war preparations begin, but Hiawatha suspects that the spiteful Pau PukKeewis is to blame.

If you're not a fan of Vince Edwards, there's probably no reason for you to watch this. It's colorful and looks like it was shot on location, or at least on an elaborate set—rare for a Monogram B-film—but to today's viewers, it will look like any average TV movie, something that might have run on The Wonderful World of Disney back in the 60s. Apparently the historical Hiawatha was known as a peacemaker, but little in the film rings true. The reviewer at DVD Talk reads the movie as commie propaganda—I guess because of its pacifist, "let's all get along" message and the attempt by the Ojibway to get the Dakota to share food over the winter—but that seems a bit far-fetched. I like Edwards, so despite his awful pig-tailed wig I stuck with the movie, but there's not much else to recommend it.  Keith Larsen is strictly average as the bad guy and Yvette Duguay is colorless as Minnehaha. [Warner Archive Instant]

Monday, September 08, 2014

THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949)

After the war, wealthy banker Claude Rains and his younger wife (Ann Todd) are vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Todd arrives first and, unexpectedly, the long-lost love of her life (Trevor Howard) whom she hasn't seen since before the war, is staying in the room next to hers. She slips in and out of reveries about Howard and we get flashbacks that explain their relationship. Many years ago, before Todd met Rains, she and Howard were lovers; he proposed marriage but she treasured her independence, wanting love "without clutching" and, fearing that marriage would trigger feelings of possession, she turned him down. In 1939, at a New Year's party, they meet again; he's with a date and she's with her husband, Rains. She cares for Rains, but their marriage is sexless and she seems satisfied with the status quo, but when Rains leaves on an extended business trip, she and Howard meet for lunch which leads to a long afternoon together which leads to an affair. When Rains finds out, the three have a confrontation and she agrees to end it. Now, in Switzerland, Todd and Howard—who is married with kids—become reacquainted and he pushes her to resume their affair, but she hesitates. Unfortunately, Rains arrives and, seeing them return from a picnic in the mountains, assumes the worst. He instigates divorce proceedings, which leaves Todd with mixed emotions, but when she finds out that Howard is unlikely to leave his family, she is driven to a desperate act.

This romantic melodrama from David Lean sounds routine, but the performances, some location shooting, and lovely black & white cinematography bring it up a notch, making it compelling viewing. The tricky flashback structure keeps you on your toes for the first half of the film. Todd and Howard seem very natural as the illicit lovers; Rains' character is mostly unlikable but complex enough that he never comes off as a villain. The marriage between Rains and Todd is basically a marriage of convenience and neither one kids themselves about that (at one point, he even says that he knows she likes, not loves, him). That fact makes it a bit difficult to accept Rains' furor when he thinks she fooling around—he says on the one hand that he knows she likes her independence, yet he is unwilling to give her too much of it. The ending is a tad far-fetched but satisfying. By the end, I was unsure to whom the title referred: Todd and Howard? Or Todd and Rains? Pictured are Todd and Howard, with Rains in the middle (and out of focus). [TCM]

Friday, September 05, 2014

THE PHANTOM EXPRESS (1932)

A series of wrecks has plagued the Southwestern Pacific railway company, and we see the latest; on a moonless night, a "phantom express" is seen racing down the tracks straight at an oncoming train. The engineer, Smoky Nolan, tries to stop, but the train derails, killing and injuring many, and the phantom train vanishes. Both Smoky and his fireman Axel insist they saw a train, but the signalman says he did not. Harrington, head of the railroad, reluctantly allows his playboy son Bruce to launch a secret investigation; Bruce's reason is that he’s fallen for Smoky's lovely daughter Carolyn. In a needlessly convoluted plan, Bruce gets his pal Dick to pose as Harrington's son while Bruce poses as his buddy, also named Bruce, and gets a job working at the roundhouse hoping to snag some clues from fellow workers. Time is of the essence for two reasons: 1) poor old Smoky is fired because of the wreck; 2) as it happens, a consortium of businessmen is trying to force Harrington to sell the railroad to them and there's a deadline of midnight—guess who winds up being behind the phantom train shenanigans?

When I run across little-known B-movie with titles like this, I get excited thinking I'm about to find a spooky and/or thrilling little gem. Usually I'm disappointed, but this one is an exception. The plot, though predictable, has a couple of nice twists, especially with regards to the explanation for the phantom train. For a 30s indie film, the effects and sets are good, combining some obvious but atmospheric use of miniatures with scenes that seem to have been shot at a real railroad yard. The acting is also notch above average. William Collier Jr. (pictured above) makes for an acceptable if unexciting hero, Sally Blane is good (though given little to do) as Carolyn, and Eddie Phillips is fine as the sidekick (who also has little to do but look distinguished pretending to be the boss's son). A man named Axel Axelson, who would seem to come by his thick Swedish accent naturally, plays Axel as a bit of a comic relief figure—Axelson seems to have never acted again. Best of all is J. Farrell McDonald as Smoky; he gives a genuinely moving performance in the scene where, after he's fired, he has to put on a smile for a surprise birthday party being given for him.

I recommend this wholeheartedly, but unfortunately it appears to be available only as a chopped-up print; the version I saw on YouTube was 55 minutes long, but other sources indicate it was released at between 65 and 70 minutes. Indeed, there are jagged jumps and moments where the screen goes black, though the story is intelligible, and in fact, what there is of the print looks good. [YouTube]

Thursday, September 04, 2014

THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM (1932)

aka THREE BROADWAY GIRLS

In this early "Gold Diggers"-style movie (though not a musical), Joan Blondell and Madge Evans are ex-showgirl roomies on the prowl for money and love, preferably both. When we first meet them, they are having a reunion with the slightly older (and much bitchier) Ina Claire who has returned from Paris after a disastrous sugar daddy hunt. They vow to stick together and be the Three Broadway Musketeers, but troubles begin immediately. Claire is pissed when she discovers that Blondell has been billing and cooing with the elderly and very rich Pops, whom she had been seeing before she went to Paris—Blondell says that "Pops is my fiancé, not that we're engaged or anything like that." Evans, who is practically engaged to the rich handsome David Manners, gets in the middle of some shenanigans involving Manners' friend, a rich pianist (Lowell Sherman, also the film's director) who shifts his attentions from Claire to Evans; she then gets irritated when Manners doesn't act jealous. Claire winds up sleeping with Sherman, and Evans gets officially engaged to Manners; out of sheer spite, Claire plants a stolen pearl necklace on Evans on the day she's meeting Manners' father, hoping to scotch the engagement. In the middle of all this, Pops dies; Claire expects a nice lump of money but instead discovers that he has warned the estate's executor about her scheming.

Based on a play—the credits read, "Based on the stage success"—this same material was adapted in the 50s as HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, and unofficially adapted by any number of films about Broadway babies looking for love. This is fun for a while, but the sheer nastiness of Ina Claire's character starts to wear you down, even though Claire is fun in the role. Why Blondell and Evans would remain friends with her is a mystery. All three women are good, though disappointingly, Blondell has the least to do. Manners is one of my favorite 30s actors, and he's fine here. Sherman is better as the conniving pianist. Fairly entertaining, though mostly of interest as a pre-Code relic. Pictured from left are Manners, Evans and Claire. [YouTube]

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

GATES OF THE NIGHT (1946)

aka LES PORTES DE LA NUIT

This interesting French film, directed by Marcel Carné and set after the liberation of Paris but before the end of the war, has a little bit of everything: it's mostly a realistic story but it has a front-and-center fantasy element; it's serious but there are light moments; it's grounded in everyday reality but there is a poetic, romantic streak running through it; it even has a film noir feel both visually and in some of the plot and character arcs. The realistic story involves the problem of those Parisians who were considered to be collaborators with the Nazis during the Occupation, some more actively than others. Resistance fighter Jean Diego (Yves Montand) comes to Paris in February 1945 to tell Mme. Lécuyer that her husband was taken off to be executed, but happily, he finds Lécuyer alive at home, having escaped. Diego had overheard Lécuyer being ratted out but didn't see who did it. Later, he hears a voice and recognizes it as the betrayer: Guy Sénéchal (Serge Reggiani), the son of Lécuyer’s landlord, who himself is shunned for his collaborationist tendencies.

In another narrative arc, the landlord's daughter Malou (Nathalie Nattier) has come to visit and Diego falls for her before he learns that she's unhappily married to Georges (Pierre Brasseur), who eventually comes looking for her. That night, Diego and Malou spend a romantic evening wandering through a (beautifully shot) junkyard, led there by a young boy, son of Lécuyer, who keeps a secret room in which he takes care of a stray cat. In a third plotline, a pair of young lovers pop in and out of the narrative; the boy has been coming to the train station gate every day just to catch a glimpse of her as she passes on the street. On this day, they finally make contact. Finally, the fantasy element is a scraggly looking fellow who calls himself Fate. At the beginning of the movie, he tells Diego he will meet the most beautiful woman in the world—and in Diego's eyes, he does—he helps get the two young lovers to finally speak to each other, and he also foretells the death of a gypsy woman by drowning, and assures another character that he won't drown, though he might like a dog.

This is a lovely film, if not exactly an uplifting one. Fate, a beggar, can tell people what will happen but he cannot change the future. Jean Vilar, as Fate, has a nicely sad look without looking either depressing or sinister. There are good guys and bad guys, but even the bad guys aren't without some sense of regret about the paths they took. The movie takes place in one day, mostly at night, hence the shadowy noir look. Montand is excellent, as is Reggiani (pictured at left with Vilar). 9-year-old Christian Simon does a nice job as the boy. Nattier (pictured at top with Montand), considering her importance to the plot, doesn't have much to do except look beautiful and a little mysterious. The 50s pop standard "Autumn Leaves" originated with this movie; it's a tune that Destiny hums from time to time, and that seems hauntingly familiar to both Diego and Malou. For lovers of Carné's epic CHILDREN OF PARADISE, this may seem slight, but it's lovely and, like "Autumn Leaves," a little haunting. [Criterion streaming]

Friday, August 29, 2014

AGGIE APPLEBY, MAKER OF MEN (1933)

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971)

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

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