Thursday, June 23, 2016

FAST WORKERS (1933)

John Gilbert and Robert Armstrong (pictured at left) are skyscraper construction workers, roommates and buddies who prank each other over women but also look out for each other. One night, Gilbert is arrested in a barroom brawl and Armstrong goes home with Mae Clarke, a shady lady who, unknown to Armstrong, has slept with Gilbert. Armstrong gets serious about Clarke and proposes marriage. When Gilbert gets wind of this, he's sure that Clarke, whom he thinks of as not much more than a whore, is out to fleece his buddy so he has a plan: he gets Clarke to take a weekend trip with him to Atlantic City and takes pictures of them being flirty, then arranges for Armstrong to find them, hoping to discourage his friend's wedding plans. But Gilbert doesn't know that Armstrong has already secretly married Clarke. When Armstrong discovers what's going on, he sets up a trap at the high-rise construction site to have Gilbert lose his footing and fall to his death. Will the plan work? And is Clarke really the gold-digger that Gilbert thinks she is?

This pre-code melodrama was, I believe, the last movie Gilbert made under contract to MGM, though Garbo insisted on having his co-star in QUEEN CHRISTINA later that year. Even at his weakest, Gilbert was worth watching, and he's actually in fairly good shape here as a cocky playboy, and Armstrong makes a good foil as his salt-of-the-earth friend. As others have noted, this isn't really a romance as much as a tale of male bonding, or bromance (which the ending makes quite clear), and though Clarke is good, she's almost wiped off the screen not only by the chemistry between the buddies but also because the best scenes in the movie are the ones with the construction workers hanging out together at dangerous heights. The shift in tones is interesting—from buddy comedy to romance to near-tragedy. Sterling Holloway and Vince Barnett are in the supporting cast, and there's a clip of Joan Crawford in LAUGHING SINNERS which we see when Armstrong and Clarke go to the movies. Directed by—though not credited to—Tod Browning, his first movie after the scandal of FREAKS. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937)

In 1897, young Priscilla (Shirely Temple) and her widowed mother Joyce (June Lang) leave their impoverished life in England to live with Priscilla's grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith), a colonel in a Scottish regiment in Northern India. Life on the military compound is not easy, but Priscilla, with her smile and joyful outlook, manages to charm almost everyone: a young and handsome lieutenant whom she nicknames Coppy (Michael Whalen)—and who nicknames her Wee Willie Winkie from the Kipling poem, the gruff Sgt. MacDuff (Victor McLaglen) who lets her participate in military exercises, and even Khoda Kahn (Cesar Romero), the leader of a group of Indian rebels who have been stealing weapons in anticipation of an uprising. Kahn, who is being held in jail, escapes during a raid on the arsenal, his escape made possible because house servant Mohammet Din (Willie Fung) smuggled in information to Kahn using little Priscilla as a unwitting messenger. During the fracas, MacDuff is fatally injured, and he dies listening to Priscilla sing "Auld Lang Syne" at his bedside. Eventually, Joyce decides the situation has become too dangerous and decides to go back to England, but Priscilla makes a last-ditch attempt at bringing the two sides together through negotiations by sneaking away with Mohammet Din and meeting with Khoda Kahn. Can this 9-year-old girl succeed in ending the bloodshed between two sides with seemingly intractable conflicts? Of course she can; she's Shirley Temple!

The Temple movies I've seen (including HEIDI and BRIGHT EYES) have tended to be less sappy and melodramatic than their reputations would indicate (except for THE LITTLE PRINCESS). This one teeters occasionally but generally avoids too much cuteness and tear-jerking (except, of course, for McLaglen's death scene). Temple and McLaglen are very good, as is Romero. Lang is colorless, and Whalen, who becomes her love interest, looks and sometimes acts rather suspicious, though ultimately he's a straight arrow. Directed by John Ford, who may be responsible for the fact that sentiment doesn't overwhelm the story. [TCM]

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966)

This is one of the first films to break out of the commercial doldrums of the documentary genre to become widely popular with film audiences. Unfortunately, it's not a great film, and time has not been kind to its patronizing views of women and native peoples. Director Bruce Brown, a surfer himself, follows two surfers, Robert August and Mike Hynson, on their trek to experience an endless summer by jetting the globe and surfing wherever they can. The two visit (moving eastward from the United States) Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In Africa, they find at least one beach with good surf where they become the first people ever to ride the waves. Also in Africa, they (or at last Brown, the narrator) take a rather backward attitude to the natives who are friendly but, to them, hopelessly primitive. They treat the village children and adults pretty much all as children--it's cute when they can't quite fathom how to surf. The boys also complain about how much it costs to stay at local hotels and how difficult it can be gain access to good surf. There is less of this as the journey progresses, though Brown also expresses amazement that women can surf--to be fair, not many did back then. The photography is lovely throughout, and occasionally the trip is interrupted by "flashbacks" to Hawaii. I'm not a surfer and am not especially interested in the sport--except insofar as I get to see well-built young men in swimming trunks--though even I was amazed at the risks these guys and their fellow surfers take sometimes. The film is entertaining and fast-moving enough, though the lack of actual recorded sound on location means the only voice we here is Brown's narrating after the fact, and he is, on balance, likably laid-back. Interesting for one visit, though I don't I imagine I'd re-watch this. But I wouldn't mind seeing seeing a current-day take on this subject. [DVD]

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

BORDERTOWN (1935)

In the Mexican quarter of Los Angeles, Johnny Ramirez (Paul Muni) graduates from the Pacific Night Law School and is singled out for praise for overcoming bad circumstances to become a success. But when he goes into business, he winds up essentially donating his time to his impoverished clients. When he represents a food vendor in court who is trying to get the wealthy socialite Dale Elwell (Margaret Lindsay) to pay for damage to his vehicle, Cortez's cockiness and inexperience get him into trouble; Elwell is found not liable—even though we know her recklessness caused the accident—and Johnny is disbarred. Disillusioned, he takes off, leaving his poor mother behind, and becomes a bouncer in a bordertown saloon. He gets in good with the boss and winds up becoming a business partner. Soon, the owner's young wife Marie (Bette Davis) takes a shine to Johnny, but he turns her away. Frustrated, Marie winds up leaving her drunken husband in his car and closes the garage door, ensuring his death.  She hopes this will snag her Johnny, but she's wrong, as Johnny, who is now business manager and is rebuilding the saloon into a fancy casino, has reconnected with the socialite Dale, who thinks of Johnny as her "savage." Marie makes trouble by claiming that Johnny was behind her husband's death, but on the witness stand, Marie has a breakdown.

This is a melodrama of jealousy, class (and race) conflict, and assimilation, which, with only a few tweaks, could probably be remade today and seem timely. Though Bette Davis is second billed, she's actually absent from much of the movie—though her courtroom scene is a standout moment, and this is Paul Muni's movie all the way. He does a good job as the Mexican-American who tries to assimilate the way he's taught he should, and when that doesn't work, takes a different path to the American Dream. In the end, he decides to return to his own "tribe," in the words of the socialite, which is not quite the ending I expected. Davis is quite good, as are Lindsay and Eugene Pallette as Davis' husband, in a role far from the comic parts he's probably more known for (the father in MY MAN GODFREY, Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD). I'm not a Muni fan but I would recommend this one. [DVD]

Monday, June 13, 2016

THE NEXT OF KIN (1942)

During World War II, British intelligence learns that the Germans are massing a submarine fleet at the coastal town of Norville, a small town in occupied France, and the British military begin planning a commando raid. Security agent Richards (Reginald Tate) is upset by the loose talk he hears and he tries to amp up awareness among the soldiers who will soon be going to Watercombe to launch their attack upon Norville. They basically get a "loose lips sink ships" lecture and are sent on their way. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the message. We see a private named Jimmy go backstage to visit his stripper friend where he innocently lets it slip that his squadron is going to Watercombe on an important mission; he tells her that hoping that she'll meet up with him there, but we discover that she's working with her dresser, known only as Ma, who is actually a Nazi spy, and soon Berlin knows there's something afoot. Germany sends a spy known as Mister Davis and/or Number 23 (Mervyn Johns) who makes contact with a bookseller named Barratt (Stephen Murray) and together they work on figuring out the logistics of the coming British raid. They get help from a young Dutch woman who works at the bookstore by threatening the lives her parents back home; she tries to get information from her boyfriend, a private named Johnny. Number 23 also insinuates himself into the community and picks up tidbits of loose talk here and there. Ultimately, a briefcase containing maps of the raid are stolen by the Nazis, and though the commando raid is successful, many men die because of the security slip-ups.

This British wartime propaganda film is labeled "a military training film" right on its title card, but was released as a full-length feature film, and despite some occasional didactic teaching moments, mostly early on, it is a solid spy film well worth seeing. Though not exactly gritty in its realism, it does have some surprising moments for a 40s movie: there are occasional mild curse words; at one point, Number 23 is seen looking at a photo book with a naked woman boldly displayed on the cover; the stripper is a drug user and her addiction is what keeps her tied to her Nazi spymaster; the final fifteen minutes is mostly composed of well-shot battle scenes which incorporate small bits of actual battlefield footage. Johns (Bob Cratchit in the 1951 Christmas Carol) does a nice job playing against type as the chief bad guy—and somewhat surprisingly, he escapes justice in the end, remaining free to keep eavesdropping on British citizens. The characters can't be said to be well-rounded (see Private Jimmy and Private Johnny), but they are made individual enough so that we can follow their plotlines and have a little something invested in their fates. A little gem of propaganda filmmaking, directed by Thorold Dickinson. [YouTube]

Thursday, June 09, 2016

THE NAKED MAJA (1958)

This biopic of the artist Francisco Goya (Anthony Franciosa) is set in 17th century Spain in the context of two social upheavals: the Spanish Inquisition and the rule of Napoleon. We first see Goya (called Paco by his friends) in the streets of Madrid with his friend José watching the procession of an Inquisition victim about to be burned. Watching from a more exalted place is Maria, the Duchess of Alba (Ava Gardner), disapproved of at court for her slumming activities. Both are disgusted by the spectacle, and later after the drunken José gets into a fight with Maria's bodyguard, Goya is slashed with a knife and Maria tends to him. When Goya gets a commission to paint a mural on the ceiling of the basilica, he paints common people instead of a traditional holy scene which causes some controversy, though it also cements Maria's admiration for him. They have an on-and-off affair, complicated by the machinations of Prime Minister Goday whom the common folk dislike because (if I followed the story correctly), he is seen as a collaborator with Napoleon. There is a brouhaha over a painting of Goya's, the Naked Maja of the title, because it is a graphic female nude—and not presented as a mythological figure but as a sensuous woman—and it is assumed to be a portrait of the Duchess of Alba. Marie is sent into exile, Goya is arrested by the Inquisition and, naturally, there is not a happy ending for the beleaguered pair. Apparently this film contains more fiction than the average Hollywood biography. It looks good, with sumptuous sets and lots of purple, though some of the dubbing—it was filmed in Italy with mostly Italian actors—is terrible. Individually, Franciosa and Gardner are fine, but they don't work up much heat together. Most critics trash this film but I couldn't really work up enough outrage to go that far. It's bland but generally watchable. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

MIDNIGHT SHADOW (1939)

Prince Alihabad, a turban-wearing mystic, has come to perform in a small Oklahoma town, staying at the home of the respectable Mr. & Mrs. Wilson and their 20-something daughter Margaret who has become enamored with the prince, much to the annoyance of her boyfriend Buster. Mr. Wilson owns oil-rich land in Texas which he plans to give to Margaret; when he tells the prince this, we see that Buster is also listening in, as is a figure outside in the dark. Alihabad tries to talk Margaret into eloping with him, but at the last minute, she decides not to. That night, we see someone sneak into the Wilsons' bedroom, dose them with something to keep them asleep, and steal the deed to the oil well. The next morning, Mr. Wilson is found dead—the sleeping potion hurt his weak heart—and the police are on the case. Tagging along is Junior Lingley, a bumbling detective wannabe who dresses up occasionally as Sherlock Holmes, and his slightly less bungling buddy Lightfoot.

This is one of those "race films" of the 30s and 40s with an all-black cast, produced by an independent company on a budget lower even than the Poverty-Row Hollywood films of the era. In that context, this is a decent little mystery, even with the following strikes against it: some truly terrible, amateurish acting (especially from Florence Redd as Margaret); cheap looking sets; a badly plotted mystery story (the culprit is a character we don't really know); and poor editing. But if a viewer can get past all that, there are some pluses: the mystery is interesting before it gets muddled, some of the dialogue is fun—when a police sergeant is criticized for not thinking enough about a clue, he replies, "Lady, I'm not paid to think—our job is finding out"; Richard Bates (think Jimmie Walker) as the bumbling Lingely is a bad actor but still gets a few laughs especially in his Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and with his obsession with fingerprints; two actors do fine jobs: Buck Woods as Lightfoot and John Criner as the prince. Also acting like pros are Jesse Lee Brooks as a cop, Ollie Ann Robinson as Mrs. Wilson, and Ruby Dandridge (mother of Dorothy Dandridge) as Lingely's mother. The bad guy is caught, but the conclusion is strangely inconclusive in a number of ways. Still, I'm not sorry to have caught this rarity on Turner Classic Movies. Pictured are Buck Woods and Richard Bates.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1940)

During the unsettled times of the Napoleonic wars, William Robinson (Thomas Mitchell), a Swiss watchmaker who lives in London, decides to move his family out of harm's way to Australia. His wife Elizabeth (Edna Best) is not happy about it, nor are her sons: foppish Jack (Freddie Bartholomew), bookworm Ernest (Terry Kilburn), and cocky would-be soldier Fritz (Tim Holt), nicknamed "Fisticuffs" by Jack (toddler Francis, the fourth son, has no opinion). William is not especially happy with the way his sons are developing and says he hopes to train them to create, not destroy. On the way to Australia, the ship they're on runs into a major storm. The crew is washed overboard but the Robinsons survive and the wreck drifts close to a deserted island where they drag the few provisions they can and try to survive. Father rallies the dispirited family and together they build a treehouse and slowly adapt to their new life, but tensions rise when Elizabeth realizes that, while the sons remain on the lookout for passing ships to rescue them, William is more than ready to stay put—he believes their trials and tribulations are part of God's plan for them.

This is not the Disney version of the Johann Wyss novel with which most of us are familiar. In addition to being shot in a studio rather than on location, and having a lower budget, this is also a little grittier and darker, probably closer to the novel—though it's been over forty years since I read it back in school. It is also difficult to see since Disney bought the rights to the RKO film back in 1960 when they produced their version and it apparently has never had a legitimate home video release. The print I saw on YouTube is murky and a bit splicy, but clear enough to show that it deserves a restored DVD release. This is not a larky boy's adventure like the Disney film but a more serious coming-of-age story in which the focus is on how the three sons change during their time on the island. All three actors playing the boys (pictured above from left: Kilburn, Holt, Bartholomew) are quite good, especially Tim Holt. The film was nominated for a special effects Oscar and, though not in the same league as the Disney film in terms of production values, the storms in particular are quite effective, as is the giant spider-web cave scene. An entertaining and interesting version of the story. [YouTube]

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

TALENT SCOUT (1937)

Steve Stewart is a gung-ho talent scout for Apex Pictures whom we first see with a busful of starlets on a national tour; despite how highly Steve thinks of himself, the tour goes so badly that the big boss fires him. While stranded in a small town, Steve attends an amateur night event and discovers wholesome singer Mary Brannigan whom he hopes might be his ticket back to studio employment, so he takes her to Hollywood with him. While waiting for her screen test, she meets Raymond Crane, Apex's big romantic leading man, but doesn’t recognize him in make-up and the two do not get along. Her screen test is a disaster, but Steve has a plan: take her out on the town and have her make a splash under the name Doris Pierce. They do, she does, and soon she's under contract at Apex. She becomes a big star and Steve nurtures a crush on her, but what will he do when a fake romance between Mary and Raymond soon becomes real?

This is the rare Warner Bros. B-film of the classic era that disappoints. The production values are fine, and the lead, Donald Woods as Steve, is good, but the rest of the cast, rather than consisting of time-tested contract players, is composed mostly of newly discovered talent. Jeanne Madden (Mary), Fred Lawrence (Raymond), and Rosalind Marquis (Raymond’s jealous leading lady Bernice) were all out of the movie acting game by 1939. They’re not bad—Lawrence is the most promising of the three—but they don't stand out in any way. Storywise, it's hard to see what Steve is supposed to see in Mary, whose singing is pleasant but whose stage presence is amateurish in the beginning, and doesn't get that much better. It's watchable, but at only 62 minutes, it began wearing out its welcome around the 45-minute mark. Pictured are Woods and Lawrence. [TCM]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954)

This Christian epic is a sequel to THE ROBE, beginning exactly where the first movie ended, even to the point of including a scene from the end of that movie as the opening scene here, but you don't need to know that film to follow this one, set not long after the crucifixion of Jesus. The emperor Caligula, hearing Christians refer to achieving eternal life through Christ, thinks if he can get his hands on the robe that Jesus wore before he died, he will be able to bring the dead back to life and live forever. Demetrius, entrusted with the robe by the apostle Peter, manages to hide it at the home of young Lucia before he is dragged off by Praetorian Guards and, unable to prove that he is a free man and not a slave, is sentenced to the gladiator arena. Meanwhile, Claudius' notoriously unfaithful wife Messalina becomes fascinated with Demetrius, who refuses to fight to the death as it's against Christ's teachings. He earns the crowd's favor when he refuses to kill Glycon, a Nubian slave who befriended him, but Caligula unleashes man-killing tigers on him. He manages to kill them all as Messalina watches in a state of sexual arousal. Demetrius is made a palace guard and Messalina tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. But when young Lucia comes to visit, she is manhandled by the gladiators and just as one of them is about to rape her, she dies in his arms. This turns Demetrius against God and he gives in to Messalina's advances—until he finds out that Lucia is not dead but hidden away in a catatonic state, being cared for by Peter.

This was filmed on the expensive sets for THE ROBE and looks great. The director, Delmer Daves, takes DeMille's lessons to heart and uses a fair amount of sex and violence to get his message across. I'm not a fan of Victor Mature, who plays Demetrius as he did in THE ROBE, but I do like Susan Hayward who does a nice job as Messalina—she is able to flesh out her character a bit beyond the usual Biblical femme fatale. Two other actors from THE ROBE also appear: Michael Rennie as Peter, who only has a few scenes, and Jay Robinson as Caligula, who once again conveys the character's full-tilt batshit manner mostly by shouting his lines with an effeminate edge. Ernest Borgnine (pictured) is the gladiator teacher and Debra Paget is Lucia. Anne Bancroft is in it as well, but I didn’t recognize her at all. This is shorter than THE ROBE and moves at a nice pace, and builds well to its climax. [TCM]