Wednesday, July 30, 2014

THE DEMI-PARADISE (1943)

aka ADVENTURE FOR TWO

A rather weak stab at wartime propaganda, the sole purpose of this British film is to make the Russians, who were their allies at the time the film was made, seem likable. Unfortunately, the movie is too long and has a lead performance (by the normally reliable Lawrence Olivier) that belongs in a different movie. Olivier plays a Russian engineer who is sent to England in 1939 (pre-war) to oversee production of his new ice-breaker ship propeller. His first impression is that the British are a bland, depressing people. He stays with the shipbuilder's family and his harsh edges are worn off a little, largely through the development of his relationship with the shipbuilder's daughter (Penelope Ward) who falls for him. The middle third of the film is a comedy of manners as Olivier stumbles through an assortment of awkward social situations and begins charming people almost despite himself. Things peak at a historical pageant that Olivier finds to be evidence that the British are living in the past. Ward calls him out as priggish and conceited, he calls her out as hypocritical and heartless, and he goes back to Russia to keep working on the propeller, leaving things unsettled.  Two years later, with war raging and the Russians and British as allies, Olivier returns with new propeller plans and is impressed with British resolve in the face of German aggression. This time, the pageant (pictured at left) is given to raise money for Olivier's home village. Olivier changes his mind about the Brits and about Ward, though at the end of the film, he returns to Russia with their romance still up in the air.

Olivier is entertaining, but he’s a showboater here, using a comically overdone Russian accent, keeping his character at a distance from the audience, whereas the other actors are more naturalistic. Ward is vivacious but doesn’t bring much else to the role, so the romance remains tepid. In a large supporting cast, old pro character actors Margaret Rutherford and Felix Aylmer stand out, and I also liked Jack Watling as a handsome worker, comedian Leslie Hanson playing himself, and Edie Martin as an old lady who, suspicious of Olivier, gives Ward a copy of Crime and Punishment to read—during the war, she comes around to liking him (of course). Parts of this film are fun, even some of Olivier's performance, but the main problem is that, at almost two hours, it’s just too long. [TCM]

Monday, July 28, 2014

THE ANGEL LEVINE (1970)

Tailor Morris Mishkin (Zero Mostel) is at the end of his rope. An observant Jew, he thinks God has abandoned him: he's applied for welfare because of a fire at his store, his sickly wife Fanny (Ida Kaminska) has been practically on her deathbed for ages and shows no signs of getting better—or worse—and one afternoon, he witnesses a black man who has just snitched a woman's fur coat run into traffic, get hit by a car, and die. After his wife has another one of her attacks and Morris has called the doctor, he discovers the dead thief, Alexander Levine (Harry Belefonte), in his kitchen (Harry Belefonte) claiming to be an angel who is on probation and has until the next morning to help Morris regain his faith. As Levine and Morris engage in philosophical and theological debates (it turns out that Levine is a Jew), Levine also tries to re-connect with his girlfriend Sally (Gloria Foster) to show that there will be something good he's left behind before he has to leave Earth for the last time.

Though not as whimsical as THE BISHOP'S WIFE or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this is still in the tradition of fantasy movies about angels and faith, though ultimately it has a much more ambiguous ending and a cutting edge to its philosophizing. If we see Morris as a George Bailey figure, he doesn’t get much satisfaction in the end: his wife, who rallies in the presence of Levine, has a setback after Levine leaves; his money and faith situations are not resolved, and Levine himself can't get Sally to believe that he's got a new outlook on life. The big question for most viewers will be, is Levine an angel or a con man? Many critics are unhappy about the ending, in which [spoiler] Morris looks for Levine the next morning and is startled by a single black feather which dances about in the air just above his head. My initial interpretation: Morris had earlier commented that Levine didn't have wings, and in this moment, one could assume that he did indeed earn them. But I'll admit that the logic, if you will, behind accepting that ending is unclear. Unless I missed something, Levine never transcends his thuggish earthly outlook and never really brings Morris back to his faith, though it can be argued that Morris has never completely lost it, as he wears a yarmulke and kisses the mezuzah when entering his apartment. But of course, he could be simply going through the surface motions of his religion. I embrace the ambiguity even as I share the frustration that the film violates the conventions of its genre.

This is a very stagy film, based not on a play but a short story by Bernard Malamud; most of it is set in Morris' apartment with an occasional detour outside. The direction and cinematography don't let things get too closed-in; in fact, it's in the exterior sequences where things go awry—especially in a strange scene in which Morris watches from outside a drugstore window while Levine creates a scene so he can swipe a prescription drug for Fanny that Morris can't afford. It's an important scene, showing that Levine can't seem to come up with a miracle outside of his earthly criminal ways, but it's irritating, played out in silence except for an overblown musical score. The acting, however, makes this worth seeing. Mostel downplays for perhaps the only time he ever did on screen and he creates a character we care about. Belafonte, who I don't think I’ve ever seen as an actor, does even better with the angel, a flawed, human and rather sexy angel—or an idealistic, unhappy and sexy con man. Kaminksa, so good in the Holocaust drama THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET (directed by Jan Kadar who directed this as well), is fine, as is Milo O'Shea—who usually plays Irishmen—as a Jewish doctor. Certainly not for all tastes, but a nice change of pace in the fantasy/religion realm. [TCM]

Friday, July 25, 2014

LIANE, JUNGLE GODDESS (1956)

The members of a German expedition in Africa (it's unclear what they're actually doing there) are sorry that Jacqueline, their doctor, is set to go back to Hamburg, mostly because she's the only female in the group. She has a bit of a crush on handsome, blond Thoren, but it's nasty old Keller who tries groping her. Meanwhile, Thoren is attacked by a native tribe and about to be killed when a nubile (and mostly naked) white teenage girl stops them. She seems to be the ruler of the tribe, and the next day Thoren runs into her when she swings, Tarzan-style, over a lake and drops in to bathe. Two of the other men in the expedition trap her in a net and bring her back to camp where the tribe attacks them but are driven off. She speaks no English, but when it's discovered that she is wearing a necklace with the letter "L" on it, it is eventually thought that she might be the heiress to a German shipping magnate named Amelongen—as a 2-year-old, the girl, named Liane, was lost and presumed dead in a shipwreck—so Thoren and Jacqueline take her with them to meet her grandfather and try to establish her lineage. In their way: Amelongen's slimy secretary Schöninck who is currently the heir and who tries his best to discredit Liane's claims.

This is presented as a jungle adventure, but only about the first half (or less) is set in Africa; once it gets to Hamburg, it becomes a typical "clashing heirs" melodrama, so if you're looking for a female Tarzan movie, this will disappoint you. On its initial release, this was advertised as "Adults only" material because Liane (Marion Michael) is topless for most of the African scenes. Michael is certainly attractive but it's a little disconcerting to realize that she was only 16 at the time. In most of the shots, her long hair covers her breasts, but not always. Aside from the few seconds of bare skin, and some shots of topless natives dancing, there is nothing else graphic or particularly adult about the movie. Hardy Kruger (pictured with Michael) is good as Thoren, and the only other cast member to stand out is Reggie Nalder as Schöninck, probably best known as the vampire in the TV-movie of Salem's Lot; his face, disfigured by burns, makes him perfect for the role of the almost Nazi-like sinister secretary. This was actually made and released in Germany in 1956, but wasn't issued in the States until 1959. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS (1935)

One night as the well-off Lamberts and their friends are indulging in some postprandial relaxation, a series of explosions rock the house, but it's just the experiments of eccentric uncle Hunter Hawk (Alan Mowbray, at right). Most of his relatives can barely put up with him, though his young niece Daphne, whom he lovingly calls Daffy (Peggy Shannon), admires him. As it happens, Hunter has finally finished his latest invention: a ring that can turn people to stone, and can bring stone statues to life. He proceeds to turn the whole obnoxious family to stone, except for Daphne and Meg (Florine McKinney), the gardener's flighty daughter who insists that she’s 900 years old and has a crush on Hunter. Hunter and Meg head off to the Metropolitan Museum and bring to life the statues of several Roman gods, including Bacchus, Neptune, Mercury, and the Venus de Milo, and they all head out to experience, as the title says, the night life. Of course, the gods are rambunctious and cause much trouble before order is restored (via a trick ending).

This strange little fantasy is based on a novel by Thorne Smith who wrote a series of bawdy adult fantasies in the 30s; if he's remembered today, it's because of the movie adaptation of his novel Topper with Cary Grant. This is not another TOPPER, but it is fun, and about as bawdy as the Code would allow—both Mercury and Venus are brought to life naked or nearly so, though they are both immediately covered up. I must admit that it's difficult to judge the look and style of the film because the print I saw on YouTube was very murky—supposedly the film has been restored by UCLA but it hasn't been released commercially yet—and it ran at least ten minutes shorter than the IMDb running time. For a high-B production, probably intended as a second feature, the effects were OK, though the acting was nothing special; Mowbray is usually a welcome presence in a movie's supporting cast but he makes for a drab leading man, especially when he's supposed to be the love interest of a sexy woman almost 15 years younger than him. But many of the lines are amusing, especially when delivered drily by Mowbray's butler (Gilbert Emery). When Mowbray announces that his family has turned to stone, Emery says, unflappably, "So I see, sir." The next morning, he asks, "The family—should I give them breakfast or dust them?" When a woman sees the bunch of half-clad gods entering a nightclub, she says, "That's what we get for bringing liquor back." I'd love to get a chance to see a clean print of this. Even in this print's diminished state, it's cute, clever fun. [YouTube]

Monday, July 21, 2014

HAVING A WILD WEEKEND (1965)

aka CATCH US IF YOU CAN

In the wake of the success of the Beatles' film A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, it's not surprising that other British Invasion bands got their own movies. This one, which features the Dave Clark Five, is a little different. The band, like the Beatles, came off as playful, stomping, fun-loving guys, but the movie they're in is anything but dumb fun. The Five play TV stunt men who have been hired to appear in an ad campaign for meat, in support of Dinah, the young and lovely model whose face has already appeared on a slew of billboards with slogans like "Meat for Go!" Dinah (Barbara Ferris) hits it off with Steve (Dave Clark), the most serious of the stuntmen and, feeling hemmed in by the demands of her bosses, she takes off in a car with Steve during an ad shoot; they plan to visit a nearby island, and on the way they wind up in a number of situations: publicly subverting the meat campaign, being asked for pot and heroin by some stoned homeless hippies, getting in the middle of military war games, and meeting a hip, middle-aged  couple who collect pop culture ephemera. Meanwhile, the chief ad executive tells the press that Dinah has been kidnapped, so everyone (the ad men, the police, the rest of the stuntmen) goes looking for them.

It feels a bit as if the screenwriter took the five-minute segment from HARD DAY'S NIGHT in which George Harrison winds up in an advertising executive's office mocking their latest teeny-bopper star and spun a whole movie out of it. There is a lot of comic potential here, but first-time director John Boorman (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR) is in a serious, almost somber mood that winds up giving the whole enterprise a schizophrenic feel. It's in black and white and most of the scenes with Ferris and Clark, which make up more than half the film, are kin to the serious social issue British films of the era (ROOM AT THE TOP, BILLY LIAR) with little laugh-out-loud humor. But the film is punctuated with wacky setpieces mostly involving the rest of the Dave Clark Five, bouncing on trampolines and holding wild parties; the most successful sequence is a costume party which features people dressed up as pop icons (Harpo Marx, Jean Harlow, the Frankenstein monster). But the wacky scenes feel out of place here, partly because Ferris and Clark are very good in their roles, as are Robin Bailey and Yootha Joyce (pictured with Clark) as the couple they spend most of the movie with. Some nice tidbits: Joyce calls Clark "saturine and well-built"; Bailey remarks that "young people are callously hopeful"; one message of the movie is delivered by Ferris to Clark: "Why can't you enjoy the journey?" The ending is downbeat, though certainly not tragic, and it's no surprise that this didn't do well at the box office given the way it was promoted as a rollicking rock & roll comedy (there are Dave Clark Five songs used in the background, but the guys never play music onscreen). Boorman's use of arty cinematography feels much more self-conscious than Richard Lester's in the Beatles movies. Not recommended for a feel-good lark, but very interesting if approached as a fairly serious meditation on mass media. [Warner Archive streaming]

Friday, July 18, 2014

BILLY THE KID (1930)

The oft-told story of Billy the Kid, romanticized outlaw figure of the Old West, focusing on a fictionalized version (using some of the actual names) of the Lincoln County War. A band of settlers led by Tunston and McSween arrive at territory overseen with an iron fist by Donovan. He tells them they're not welcome, but they stay despite his threats, and when Billy the Kid (Johnny Mack Brown) and his Mexican buddy Santiago arrive, they align themselves with the settlers and Donovan and his men back down a bit, especially after Pat Garrett (Wallace Beery), a friend of Billy's, becomes sheriff, and there is peace for a time. But after Tunston's fiancée Claire (Kay Johnson) arrives from the East, trouble starts. Violence flares, Tunston is killed, and Billy and his friends try to protect McSween. In the end, after a lengthy shootout, Billy is starved out of hiding—Garrett fries up some bacon outside the cave where Billy's holed up and Billy gives himself up. The outlaw is offered an amnesty but doesn't take it, and in the end, Garrett lets Billy escape, taking Claire with him off into the sunset.

I’m used to Hollywood versions of historical events being glamorized and falsified, but I admit I was taken aback by this ending, especially when most folks, if they know nothing else about Billy the Kid, know he was killed by Pat Garrett. As is usual with this story, Billy is played by someone too old (the Kid was 21 when he died and Brown, pictured, was 26 and looked more like 30), though Brown is fine in the role, and Beery is also good as Garrett, underplaying instead of engaging in his usual scene-stealing. Johnson is a blank as the Sweet Flower of Eastern Womanhood, though supporting players Roscoe Ates (as comic relief) and James Marcus (the bad guy Donovan) stand out. Compare this with the 1941 Robert Taylor version ; the later movie is better but this one is more than passable if taken as just a western tale. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

WATERFRONT (1939)

This tepid B-melodrama begins on the New York docks as Jimmy (Dennis Morgan), head of the Waterfront Club, a social club for dock workers, gets into a fistfight with hotheaded Mart Hendler (Ward Bond) who thinks Jimmy lords his position over everyone else. But it's innocent Frankie who winds up in the hospital, getting an accidental punch in the jaw from a very contrite Jimmy. Jimmy's gal Ann (Gloria Dickson), concerned with Jimmy's anger issues which were passed onto him from his late father, has Father Dunn talk to him. The talk works for a while and Jimmy agrees to marry Ann, leave the docks, and take up ranching out west. But at a Waterfront Club party, a drunken Hendler starts another fight and accidentally kills Jimmy's kid brother Danny. Hendler goes on the run, chased by both Jimmy and the cops. When Jimmy finds out where Hendler's hiding, he forgets his promises, takes a gun, and goes to mete out his own justice. Like most Warner Bros. B-films of the classic era, this is fairly well produced and has a decent cast—it's Dennis Morgan's first starring role and he's handsome and charismatic enough, though the character as written is predicable and not all that sympathetic. Dickson (pictured with Morgan) is about average, but Bond is very good as the villain. Frank Faylen and Marie Wilson are enjoyable as another waterfront couple. OK if not a standout. [TCM]

Monday, July 14, 2014

THE FLEET’S IN (1942)

We are warned right away via musical number: "Hey there, mister, you better hide your sister 'cause the fleet's in!" Shy sailor Casey Kirby (William Holden) gets roped into kissing a movie star for a publicity photo and all his fellow sailors start jokingly referring to him as the Navy's best ladies’ man. Jake (Leif Erickson), who fancies himself a real stud, bets Casey's buddy Barney (Eddie Bracken) that Casey can't get the Countess of Swingland (Dorothy Lamour), a singer at a San Francisco dance hall, to kiss him in public; apparently, she has the reputation of being a real ice queen. Barney really needs to win the bet so he does everything he can to get Casey and the Countess together. Thus begins a series of misadventures between Casey and the Countess: first he misinterprets her interest—she lets him accompany her one night in order to escape the attentions of a rich old geezer—then she learns about the bet but doesn't understand that Casey is really falling in love with her. For good measure, the Countess's brash roommate and fellow singer (Betty Hutton) gets interested in Barney.

This cute Paramount musical was filmed in late 1941 before Pearl Harbor, though it was released in early 1942, after the United States entered the war, so it occupies a strange narrative place. In the movie, there is no mention of war; in fact, Holden refers to having one last short stint in the Pacific before his Navy duties are over, something that probably would have rung false to moviegoers of 1942. The plot is a variation on the Astaire/Rogers movies in which a mismatched couple slowly fall in love. This doesn't have the wit or visual style of those films; it relies more on physical comedy, and your tolerance for the wacky stylings of Betty Hutton will determine how much of this you will sit through. I lasted til the end but just barely. The very young William Holden (pictured to the right of Bracken) is quite comely and creates an interesting character: he's not shy in the obvious comical way that most actors of the time would have been, but instead he seems more like a thoughtful, quiet young man still figuring out his place in the world. Lamour is brittle and fairly unappealing; I didn't know what Holden saw in her that made him continue with his mild pursuit. I'm not a fan of Hutton, and this movie didn't change my mind, but she does have one good number, "Arthur Murray Taught Me to Dance in a Hurry." I like Bracken and he's fine here, managing the tricky task of being the comic sidekick without going overboard and becoming irritating. Jimmy Dorsey and his band perform backup throughout and there are two standards in the soundtrack, "Tangerine" (which became a hit again in the disco era) and "I Remember You." Also with Gil Lamb, a tall Ray Bolger-type dancer, and Big Band performers Jimmy Dorsey, Helen O'Connell and Bob Eberly. Cute but not essential. [TCM]

Friday, July 11, 2014

DJANGO (1966)

"Spaghetti Western" is the term for an Western film shot in Italy, by Italian directors and with an Italian cast, though set in the American Old West and featuring an American or British star in the lead role. The plot typically involves a loner hero or anti-hero who arrives in a town and is caught between two battling factions. He usually kicks the bad guys' asses then leaves town. I have seen very few of these except for the archetypal one, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY which was Clint Eastwood's breakout movie role, but I saw that years ago on a tiny tabletop TV, not letterboxed, so my memory of it is very dim. So I'm calling DJANGO my first spaghetti Western.

Django (Franco Nero, pictured) comes into a very muddy town dragging a coffin behind him. The nearly-empty frontier town has been ruined by a war between a gang of Mexican bandits and a group of proto-Ku Klux Klan Southerners led by Major Jackson. Django sees a woman being whipped by some ugly men; she's Maria, a prostitute who has made the mistake of selling herself to both the Mexicans and the Confederates. The Mexicans who are whipping her are shot to death by a gang of Confederates, but when they decide to burn her at the stake, Django kills the Confederates and takes her back to the saloon/brothel which is about the only going concern left. Django is on neither side in the small war; out for revenge against Major Jackson, he seems to buddy up to the Mexicans, but later he steals a huge fortune in gold from the bandits. There are a couple of startling scenes of slaughter and a torture scene in which a monk has his ear cut off and is forced to eat it. Ultimately, Django is punished by having both his hands broken, and yet in the tense climax, he manages to come out on top anyway.

This is violent and nihilistic, and entertaining. The character of Django is the perfect anti-hero: we can't really condone much of what he does, but because everyone else around him is pretty much evil and he seems to be acting out of a need for personal vengeance, we're on his side most of the time. Nero is handsome and charismatic; even though he is caked in mud all through the movie, everyone else is even filthier. No one else comes close to being very likeable—Maria has been wronged, for sure, but we never get to know her very well; Nathaniel, the saloon owner and pimp, seems harmless; and everyone else is a bastard. Though there is lots of violence, it's not as gory as it would have been if made twenty years later; for example, the ear slicing scene is not nearly as graphic as Quentin Tarentino's similar moment in RESERVOIR DOGS. The presence of a machine gun seems anachronistic, but why bother about details? I don't think I’ll be going on a spaghetti Western jag anytime soon, but I did enjoy this. [DVD]

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY (1965)

The women of Troy are being sacrificed one by one to appease a giant sea monster. Some families are fleeing Troy, but they often wind up captured, tortured and enslaved by pirates. Hercules, Diogenes and young Ulysses, on the ship Olympia, come across a pirate ship; they board, kick a lot of pirate ass, and free the slaves, but when Hercules hears their stories of what's happening in Troy, the three decide to go open up a tin of whoop-ass on the sea monster. In Troy, Princess Diana, who will soon become queen, welcomes the three, but soon Diogenes suspects that someone is out to stop Diana from taking the throne. On the day of the sacrifice ritual, Diana is chosen, but Hercules is trapped in a pit. Will he escape in time to save her, and get rid of the sea monster once and for all?

Well, of course—he's Hercules! This pleasant peplum diversion, under an hour in length, was a pilot for a TV series which never sold, though this was eventually broadcast as a TV-movie. It's one of the few sword-and-sandal flicks to feature mostly English-speaking actors who don't seem to be dubbed. Despite the low budget, it doesn't look bad. The monster, not seen until the climax, is a little goofy-looking (see picture at left), but for TV, it's effective enough. Gordon Scott, who also played Tarzan a few times, is a fine Hercules. Mart Hulswit is a little on the wimpy side for Ulysses, and Paul Stevens verges on nerdy as Diogenes, the thinking sidekick (all three pictured above right). Diana Hyland is the Princess who, despite her importance to the plot, doesn't have much to do. There are a couple of interesting fantasy elements: Herc gets to ride an invulnerable horse (we see a spear bounce right off of it) and Diogenes comes up with a substance that burns on contact with water to fight the sea monster. [DVD]