Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE GIRL FROM 10TH AVENUE (1935)

At a high society wedding in New York City, Valentine is marrying John as Geoff (Ian Hunter), the man she broke up with, watches drunkenly from the sidewalk in front of the church. He creates a small scene and just as the police are called, working girl Miriam (Bette Davis) recognizes him and spirits him away to a cafĂ©. His buddies Hugh and Tony find him and offer Miriam $100 to keep an eye on him for a while. Even though she’s about to be laid off at her sewing job, she is offended by the cash offer, but she does agree to watch over him. The next morning, he wakes up in her apartment to discover that the two of them, both drunk, got married at 3 a.m. the night before. She's willing to give him his freedom but he decides to stay with her and lay low until he gets back on his feet, socially speaking. Of course, soon Miriam truly falls in love with him, but when Valentine's marriage to John heads south in a hurry, she comes running back to Geoff, and the despondent John begins hanging out with Miriam. Complications ensue on the way to a happy ending. This is a cute romantic comedy very much in line with other mismatched-couple comedies of the era, but Davis is wasted in a fairly wishy-washy role—this is another movie like HOUSEWIFE and THE GOLDEN ARROW made before Davis won her first Oscar and Warners was putting her in anything. I very much liked British actor Ian Hunter, who isn't really cut from leading man cloth but who turns in a fine performance here, though the chemistry between the leads is only so-so. Colin Clive and Katherine Alexander are adequate as the other couple; more fun are Phillip Reed and John Eldredge as Geoff's friends, and Alison Skipworth as Miriam's landlady. A generally frothy comedy, undercut a bit by a rushed ending. Davis and Hunter are pictured above. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955)

Tom Ewell is a Manhattan publishing executive, getting close to middle age, and looking forward to a ritual that, according to this movie, seems to have been mandatory among businessmen of a certain age back in the 50s: sending his wife and child away to a resort (in this case in Maine) for the summer. Theoretically it's to get them out of the heat and sweat of the big city, but it's also a vacation for all these businessmen, many of whom plan to have a wild time while the family's away.  His wife makes him promise to stop smoking and drinking while she's gone, and he gives it the old college try, but he also winds up bored silly in his apartment, talking to himself constantly while trying to resist the lure of cigarettes and alcohol. The book he's currently editing is by a psychologist who posits the theory of the "seven year itch," a yen to stray that men get seven years into their marriage. He realizes he's been married for seven years and we see fantasy sequences in which he is set upon by the many horny women still left in the city, but when one such woman suddenly pops up in real life, a new neighbor living right above him, his resistance drops to near zero. He meets the neighbor (Marilyn Monroe) when she accidentally drops a potted plant off her balcony onto his. Angry at first, he looks up and sees not only a lovely, young, buxom blonde, but also a lovely blonde who is next to naked—her undies are in the refrigerator to stay cool because her apartment is so hot. He invites her down for a drink, imagining a spectacular seduction scene, and she certainly seems willing to play around, but despite many chances, he gets no further than a kiss. The next night, however, she asks if she can sleep over at his air-conditioned place. He worries about what the other neighbors and visitors will think, but she discovers that a door in her floor connecting her apartment with his which can be opened and invites herself in. Will he give in to the itch?

This film is famous for its iconic image of Monroe standing over a sidewalk grate, the breeze blowing her skirt practically up to her head—but the funny thing is, that ubiquitous full-length image of her doesn't actually appear in the movie. All we see is the skirt billowing from the waist down, a cut to her face, then a cut down to the skirt again. The full image was saved for publicity uses only, apparently. Overall, this sex farce has dated just as much as any sex farce, which means, quite a bit. I've read that in the play, the husband actually does sleep with the girl (who is never named, and only referred to in the cast list as The Girl), but of course under the Production Code, an unambiguous reference to adultery would not have been tolerated, so here their relationship is more chaste. However, though Ewell does a nice job in a role which requires him to be onscreen every moment of the film, his sexual charge is underplayed—he's got kind of a goofy, boyish appeal, like Robert Morse in the 60s, but had the role been portrayed by an actor with more physicality (Jack Lemmon, perhaps, who was boyish and sexy), the sparks might have been more interesting. I'm not a Monroe fan, but she does a nice job here keeping Ewell and the audience off-guard about how far she's willing to go with her flirtation. Because there are so many fantasy sequences interspersed throughout, it's tempting to read everything that happens with the Monroe character as fantasy, but I'm not sure that reading can be sustained. Evelyn Keyes is the wife and Sonny Tufts is the beefcake guy that she winds up spending time with in Maine, which makes Ewell jealous even as he plans to be unfaithful. Carolyn Jones appears is a small role as one of Ewell's fantasy conquests. Amusing, but if your tolerance for Ewell is low, you probably won’t make it all the way through the film. [DVD]

Friday, February 17, 2017

BROADWAY MUSKETEERS (1938)

A B-budget remake of the pre-Code classic THREE ON A MATCH. Margaret Lindsay is a rich, bored housewife and mother; Ann Sheridan is a low-rent singer/dancer; Marie Wilson is a secretary. The three were all friends growing up in an orphanage and they meet up again when Sheridan is thrown in jail for starting a strip tease and the other two pay her bail. They renew their friendship and get tangled up in each other's lives. Lindsay is having an affair with a gangster (Richard Bond); at first, Sheridan helps her hide the affair, but after Lindsay leaves for her new beau, Sheridan falls for her husband (John Litel) and they marry. Soon, Bond has put Lindsay's young daughter (Janet Chapman) in danger over some gambling debts, and Lindsay risks her own life to save her daughter. Litel and Chapman made an underwhelming father-daughter duo in LITTLE MISS THOROUGHBRED but they are slightly better here. Lindsay is bland as the tragic figure in the trio, nowhere near as good as Anne Dvorak was in the original (Bond is also no threat the original bad guy, Lyle Talbot) though Sheridan and Wilson are fine. Instead of the "three on a match" ritual in the first movie, here the women meet for lunch and throw their glasses into a fireplace. A comic highlight in the retelling of Snow White in gangster lingo by Dewey Robinson, a goon with a soft spot for kids, to Chapman. Also with Dick Purcell as the chief thug. Overall, does nothing to improve on the original except for the women's toast: "May we never have shiny noses." [TCM]

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

THE SAVAGE GIRL (1932)

After a lecture he's given about his African jungle adventures, Jim Franklin, procurer of wild animals, is approached by the drunken millionaire Amos Stitch. Stitch wants to finance a trip to Africa and have Franklin bag a few animals for his own private zoo, and of course Stitch wants to go along. Franklin somewhat reluctantly agrees, and Stitch insists they leave the next morning. They board the ship with Stitch, still—and always—inebriated, paying, on a whim, to have a taxi driver and cab brought along for the ride. In Africa, they hire the brutish German guide Vernuth to lead them into the jungle. They also hear stories, which they dismiss as folktales, about a white jungle goddess living with a tribe of natives, but of course, the stories prove to be true: there is a savage Girl (never named) who doesn't speak English but can commune with jaguars and chimps. When the men trap a lion, the Girl steals into their camp that night and frees it, but she herself falls into another trap and is caught. (Considering her supposed savageness, it's odd that her only weapon—and talent—seems to be an ear-piercing shriek.) When Vernuth tries to have his way with her, Franklin steps in, kicks Vernuth out, and cozies up less violently to the Girl. The rest of the tale is of Vernuth's attempted revenge; he gets some natives to kidnap Franklin to use him as a sacrifice. Can the drunken millionaire and the not-so-adventurous taxi driver save the day?

This low-budget indie was, I imagine, rushed into production to benefit from the success earlier in the year of MGM's TARZAN THE APE MAN. Like most B (or below) adventure films, a lot of stock footage of jungle animals is used to make us think we're somewhere besides a studio in Hollywood—and as in most cases, it doesn't really work. But the bigger problem here is the Savage Girl herself—both as a character (she's mostly passive and uninteresting despite apparently being a "goddess") and as an actress (in later films like ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN, Rochelle Hudson is fine but here her acting consists of empty looks and screaming). Her leading man, Walter Byron as Franklin, isn't terribly inspiring, and Harry Myers as the Stitch is a one-note drunk. The best performance is given by Adolph Milar as the German villain. Strangely, the movie opens with a crawl advising us to just relax and have a good time—did they really think anyone above the age of 7 would mistake this for a documentary, or a complex analysis of social issues? Not a total waste of time, but not really worth searching out. Pictured on the poster above, from left, are Milar, Byron and Hudson. [YouTube]

Thursday, February 09, 2017

THE STEEL LADY (1953)

The Trans-Africa Oil Company has sent four men out from Casablanca in a scouting plane looking for possible oil field sites in the Sahara Desert. The pilot (Rod Cameron) is a tough, no-nonsense type; the mechanic (Richard Erdman) is level-headed and friendly and missing his buxom blond girlfriend; the surveyor (John Dehner) drinks too much; which leaves the radio operator (Tab Hunter) as the young wet-behind-the-ears kid. As tensions begin to show, they hit a nasty sandstorm which grounds the plane and damages the radio—they can receive but not transmit. Knowing a rescue plane will be coming, they take turns keeping watch, but Hunter, who stayed awake too long working on the radio, falls asleep at his post and they miss the plane. However, they find a German WWII tank buried in the sand, get it started, and, with barely enough water for drinking and for the tank, decide to use it to get to a nearby Foreign Legion outpost. The increasingly drunken and sullen Dehner finds some gems hidden in the tank and doesn't tell the others. When they reach an oasis at which a Bedouin tribe is camped, they are given a friendly welcome and even an offer to buy the tank—it likely contains the Treasure of Calipha, stolen by the Germans during the war. Dehner realizes that the gems he found must be the Treasure so he sneaks into the tank and takes them, but he drops one; later, when the Bedouins search the tank, they see that lone gem and think the men are trying to steal their property. After a fistfight and shootout, the men escape—though Hunter is seriously wounded—and when Cameron finds out that Dehner actually did take the gems, he gets pissed. Soon, they find themselves surrounded by tribes with guns, but Hunter has also managed to get the transmitter working briefly—will help come in time?

This is a nifty little desert adventure B-movie that benefits from solid performances and the "Nazi stolen treasure" vibe of the McGuffin. The characters are developed just enough for us to care a little bit about their interactions, and the heat and grime and sweat and thirst all feel real enough. Only 22 at the time, Hunter feels a little less assured than the others, but it's not a bad performance. Cameron was mostly a star of Westerns on the big screen and played cops on TV; I only remember him as a minor player in NO HANDS ON THE CLOCK. Dehner, who I mostly know from 70s TV, makes a nicely slimy villain. The "Steel Lady" of the title is the tank. Overall, a good popcorn movie worth searching out. (Pictured left to right are Hunter, Erdman, Dehner and Cameron) [TCM]

Monday, February 06, 2017

THE VOICE OF MERRILL (1952)

A twisty, intriguing mystery with film noir touches (thematically if not visually) that could benefit from stronger acting and one more pass at the screenplay. The core characters are Hugh Allen (Edward Underdown), a writer nearing middle age who, despite having two published novels, is still toiling in obscurity; Ronald Parker, his publisher who seems a bit of a cold fish; Jonathan Roche (James Robertson Justice), a famous author with a weak heart who insists on ignoring his doctor's warnings that without lifestyle changes, he only has a few months to live; Alycia Roche (Valerie Hobson), Jonathan's wife, who fell out of love with him long ago. There is a fifth person tying the above four together: Jean Bridges, secretary to Parker and potential love interest for Allen. On the night that Hugh is to meet Jean for dinner, she is late and he ends up sitting with Ronald and Alycia. Sparks fly between Hugh and Alycia, but news soon arrives that Jean has been murdered in her bedroom (the event which opens the movie). As the police investigate, our foursome play out their little games. To help her new lover's career, Alycia talks her husband into letting Hugh be the public voice of Merrill, a pseudonym Jonathan is using for some lesser stories he's having read on the radio. It turns out that Jean had been blackmailing Ronald and drained his finances, so Ronald had gone to Jonathan asking for money, though Jonathan turned him down. When Jonathan has a life-threatening heart incident, Alycia considers withholding his medicine from him (shades of THE LITTLE FOXES), then later thinks about taking a more active role in getting rid of him. Meanwhile, the public thinks Hugh has written the popular Merrill stories which rankles Jonathan for a while until he goes to Ronald and finally agrees to give him money in exchange for him pulling a nasty trick on Jonathan and Alycia. All these plot threads come together in a climax right out of film noir, even taking place on a nighttime city street.

This little-known British film, known in the States as MURDER WILL OUT, is worth watching for, though as I noted in the beginning, the acting is generally on the second-string level; Justice is a standout, but Underdown (pictured), theoretically the protagonist, is left in the dust, and Hobson isn't that much better—she sometimes seems to be pulling faces instead of acting. B-director John Gillings pulls off some nice visuals, especially in the opening scene of the murder. The occasionally convoluted plot is kept fairly clear, though lack of background on some of the characters, particularly the murder victim, keep some plot points murky. [Amazon Streaming]

Thursday, February 02, 2017

NOAH’S ARK (1928)

This silent film (with some sound sequences) sets up two stories, a modern one set during WWI and a Biblical one about Noah and the ark, which are supposed to mirror and comment on each other. We start with Noah's ark after the flood, pictured with the rainbow God sent to assure Noah that he would never drown the world again. Then a pictorial comparison is drawn between man's hubris in the past (building the Tower of Babel, worshipping the Golden Calf) and the present (riches being won and lost in the stock market, gambling, suicide). We are introduced to our main characters in 1914, at the onset of war, as passengers on the Orient Express: Travis and Al (young American playboy buddies doing Europe for a lark); Mary (a lovely German girl, part of a traveling acting troupe) who flirts a bit with Travis; Nickeloff, a Russian from the War department (who looks like Rod Steiger in DR. ZHIVAGO), and an itinerant Holy Man. After some philosophical squabbling, during which Nickeloff declares that the only gods are money, science and war, the train derails and our band of travelers winds up at a lodge. Nickeloff enters Mary's room with nefarious intentions but is tossed out by Travis and Al—who frankly seem a lot more interested in each other than in any girls. When war is declared, however, the three stay in Paris—as a subtitle says, "Travis stayed because of Mary and Al stayed because of Travis." Years later, when America enters the war, Al patriotically enlists leaving Travis behind, but eventually Travis does as well, leading to a very lovey-dovey reunion between the two, but during battle, Al winds up dying in Travis' arms. Nickeloff, getting his revenge against Mary, claims she's a spy and puts her in front of a firing squad, but Travis, one of the shooters, recognizes her. Just as he tries to stop the execution, a bomb falls and they all wind up trapped in a cellar with the Holy Man from the train (pictured above).

At this point, a subtitle reads, "As the Ark prevailed upon the flood, so let Thy righteousness prevail in this Deluge of Blood." We now shift to the story of Noah's ark featuring the same actors from the WWI story—Noah is the Holy Man, building his ark at the command of God, and two of his sons are Travis and Al, still looking longingly at each other (pictured at right). The King of Ur (Nickeloff) abducts Noah's family's handmaid Miriam (Mary) as a virgin sacrifice, and Japeth (Travis), in love with her, goes to her rescue but is blinded and put to work in the stone mills. Just as Miriam is about to meet her fate, the Lord brings the flood, and we all know what happens next.

This film is notorious for the fact (which I've never seen seriously disputed) that three extras were killed during the flood sequence. It is indeed an impressive scene, but knowing about those deaths can't help but color your experience of it. Going beyond that, both sections of the film work fairly well, the first as romantic war melodrama, the second as biblical epic, but the meshing of the two is unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfying. The finale equates the God's rainbow in the Bible story with the WWI armistice, implying that there will be no more war, and we all know how that turns out. The acting in the WWI section is good, with George O'Brien as Travis, Delores Costello as Mary, and Noah Berry as Nickeloff;  Guinn Williams, who was a sidekick stalwart in the 30s and a B-western player through the 50s, makes the most of a rare leading role here as Al, though he fades into the background in the Noah story. Myrna Loy has a small but noticeable role in both stories as well. Paul McAllister as Noah and the WWI Holy Man has little to do but look insufferably pious. When God speaks to Noah, it's as a burning bush and with huge stone tablets conveying his message, so I'm guessing that DeMille cribbed from this for his similar scene with Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The two or three sound sections don't really add anything to the film; they're just there as a gimmick so the movie could be advertised as "talking." Worth seeing for fans of silent film. [TCM]

Monday, January 30, 2017

MIDNIGHT PHANTOM (1935)

I generally love B-movies and Poverty Row films of the 30s and 40s, but even my patience was tested by this one. I did get to the ending, so for the record, here's a summary. Cop Dan Burke tells police chief Sullivan that he intends to marry Sullivan’s daughter, Diana, though the chief wishes she would marry noted criminologist David Graham. Later, Dan's half-brother is killed during a bank robbery attempt and Sullivan decides that it would not be proper for Diana to marry Dan; his specific words to Dan are, "You'll never marry her as long as I’m alive!" That night, at midnight, Graham conducts a "line-up show" for the cops in which he shows how he can tell the specific criminal pasts of convicts just by looking at them. After the event, Sullivan is assumed to have fallen asleep, but he's actually dead, killed by a poison dart. There are several suspects, as Sullivan had alienated his officers with his recent attempts at cleaning up the department, but Dan is the most obvious suspect. Can Graham crack the case and clear his romantic rival—or does he really want to?

This is only 63 minutes, but it's one of the longest hours I've spent watching a movie. The plot is OK, and there is a nicely tricky ending, but the acting is blah and the dialogue is silly; when Dan is understandably upset over the death of his brother, Diana says woodenly, "Shake off the blues!" I expected her to go into a clunky rendition of Irving Berlin’s "Shakin' the Blues Away" but sadly it never happened. Most of the cast members are relative unknowns (Lloyd Hughes as Dan [pictured], Claudia Dell as Diana, Jim Farley as Sullivan) and I can tell from this movie why. But the usually reliable Reginald Denny doesn't fare much better as Graham, so maybe the poor acting is the fault of the director, Bernard B. Ray, who is also unknown to me—and is likely to stay that way. Things do pick up in the last ten minutes, but not enough for me to recommend this to anyone. [YouTube]

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964)

This early giallo film (an Italian genre which typically mixes elements from mysteries and crime thrillers with sex, gore and an elaborate visual style) is also considered the starting point for what became the slasher movie. Technically, it's an old-fashioned mystery or police drama at heart. A masked killer is stalking a fashion house, killing attractive female models. The police are called in and it's discovered that the first woman killed, Isabella, was keeping a diary filled with salacious secrets about the fashion house, but the diary is now missing. The owners of the house (Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok) seem a little lackadaisical about the other models' concerns for their wellbeing and the murders continue, with the killer apparently searching for the diary. The chief inspector (Thomas Reiner) puts all the men in and around the house, including Mitchell, in jail overnight but a murder occurs anyway. How many more will die before justice is served?

Well, if you paid attention to the Italian title (which is usually translated as "Six Women for the Murderer") you'll know. You'll also probably figure out at least part of the solution. But the entertainment value here isn't in the mystery, but in the creepy but gorgeous stalking and murder setpieces. Director Mario Bava indulges his talent for use of color both visually and symbolically. Whatever you may think of the portrayal of the murders (unsettling but not as graphic as would become common after 1978's HALLOWEEN), the film is, between use of color and use of the camera, stunning looking. I find most giallo movies to be claustrophobic—I'm not sure if it's camera angles or airless plotting or the artificial dubbing—and this one is as well, perhaps mostly because it all takes place in the fashion house or in the models' homes. Despite the large size of the rooms and the widescreen format of the film, the atmosphere still feels stifling, and that may well add to the overall tone of unease. Mitchell, Bartok and Reiner are fine, and not much in the way of emoting is asked of anyone else. You could probably turn the sound down on this and still enjoy it as visual art: the red mannequins with jet black hair, the deep shadows, the rich reds and purples, the use of mirrors and curtains. This is a cult classic that deserves to be given credit for launching a genre of horror film that lives on. [TCM]

Monday, January 23, 2017

DEVIL MAY CARE (1929)

To avoid further war, Napoleon renounces the throne and goes into exile at Elba; his men, led by Ramon Novarro, send him off with a rousing song, but a group of Royalists, led by John Miljan, arrest Novarro and his men. Novarro is put in front of a firing squad but, in a clever, almost slapstick scene, confounds the soldiers and escapes. He tries hiding in the bedroom of a young woman (Dorothy Jordan) with whom he flirts, but when she finds out he is a follower of Napoloen, she gives him up to a soldier. But the resourceful Novarro thrashes the man, dresses in his uniform, and makes good another escape—this time to a chateau in southern France where his cousin, a countess (Marion Harris), lets him stay disguised as a footman. But guess who shows up? Jordan, a cousin of the countess, whom we discover holds a grudge against all thing Napoleonic because of relatives killed by Napoleon's men. Navarro falls in love with her and the overwhelming question becomes, can Novarro break down her prejudices and warm her up to his charms before he is called off to help Napoleon return from exile?

I know very little about Napoleon—pretty much, just what Woody Allen says about him in LOVE AND DEATH—but the history and politics aren't important here. This is an early sound musical based on an 1851 French play, and taking that into account, it's mostly fun going until the last half-hour or so when Novarro's drawn-out romantic agonies get a little hard to sit through. However, Novarro is one of my favorite 30s actors and he acquits himself nicely here with his pleasant singing voice and his easy-on-the-eyes looks. Jordan and Harris are acceptable if not much more, and the same goes for the villainous Miljan. The song "How Can You Be So Charming" is cute the first time, tiresome by the fourth time. As a novelty, there is a brief scene of dancers at a festival shot in color—though now it's faded to mostly orange. Even if I got a little antsy near the end, it's still generally a pleasant diversion. [TCM]