Monday, January 15, 2018

CHICAGO (1927)

Amos Hart (Victor Varconi) wakes up one morning to go to work and lovingly looks at his sleeping wife Roxie (Phyllis Haver, pictured below); he doesn't even mind the slovenly appearance of her half of the room, picking up her scattered underthings with an almost paternal smile on his face. But we soon find out that Roxie is not as satisfied with married life as he is; she wants money, easy and lots of it. Katie, the young cleaning woman in their apartment building, is clearly sweet on Amos, and he takes notice of her, giving her coupons to use at the drugstore he owns. While Amos is at work, a man named Casley (Eugene Pallette) stops by, chattering about wanting to cut his sweetie loose—Amos will have cause to remember this exchange. It turns out that the sweetie Casley's talking about is Roxie; he drops by to see her and, exasperated by the lingerie bills she's running up and giving to him, he tells her he's through. They argue and, as he steps out of the apartment, she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. She calls Amos and tries to say that the man was a burglar, but Amos recognizes him from the store and puts two and two together.

When the cops come, Amos tries to say he shot Casley, but they figure it out and arrest Roxie for murder—though she claims self-defense. The notorious lawyer Billy Flynn is called in, but his fee is $5,000—he tells Amos, you can pay the money or Roxie will hang. Amos can only raise half, so in desperation, he breaks into Flynn's house and steals the money that he will use the next day to pay Flynn. Meanwhile down at the jailhouse, Roxie is the latest sensation in a small group of "beautiful murderesses" making front page news. The headlines brand Roxie "The Jazz Slayer: because her player piano was going full blast during the shooting. She seems to enjoy the attention and wants to look sexy on the stand, but Flynn warns her, "You can't tell a jury you shot a man for your honor—in a skirt up to your hips!" In the courtroom, she plays her part to the hilt, looking both sexy (the men of the jury are noticeably hot and bothered by her) and noble, but can she win acquittal? And whether she does or not, will Amos stand by her?

This is the silent version of the stage play that went on to spawn a 40s talkie (ROXIE HART), a blockbuster stage musical by Bob Fosse, and an Oscar-winning film. The plot points and the satire concerning sensational journalism are present in all versions, though the 40s film makes Roxie innocent which dulls the sharpness of the story's outcome. This version, directed mostly by an uncredited Cecil B. DeMille, may be one of the best silent films to show someone who thinks he or she doesn't like silents—it's fast paced, well acted, has a very modern feel in terms of ironic humor, and has some great stylistic touches. Charleston Lou, who knifed her sweetie in a dance hall, is seen reading an etiquette book chapter called, "When is it correct to use a knife?" Roxie’s claim that "we both grabbed for the gun" is echoed in a song in the Fosse show. When Amos has finally had enough of Roxie's two-facedness, he says, "I'd see my soul burn in hellfire before I'd touch you again!" The shooting is staged quite well, as are the courtroom scenes. This movie was thought lost for many years, but an intact copy was found recently in DeMille's archives. A hugely enjoyable experience. [DVD]

Tuesday, January 09, 2018


The Nelson brothers, Chuck and Lex, members of a wealthy San Francisco family, are on a fishing vacation in Mexico. Lex (Dean Jones) is a frequent visitor and he has brought Chuck (John Drew Barrymore), a post-traumatic stress sufferer from his time as a POW during the Korean War. While there, Chuck meets and snuggles up with Ginny (Julie London), a knockout who, after they begin dating, tells him she is one-quarter black African (Portuguese-Angolan, to be precise). He doesn't care, he's just glad to have found someone to love and help him recuperate from his war experiences.  Chuck proposes to Ginny, she accepts—though she also warns him about potential problems her race may cause. Back in San Francisco, Cornelia, the family matriarch (Agnes Moorehead) is happy for Chuck at first, but when reporters get wind of Ginny's background, it's splashed all over the front pages: "Bride Revealed as Quadroon!" The two move into a nice suburban house, but the neighbors let their disgust be known with unfriendly words (chants of "Back to Mexico!") and rocks thrown through windows. When the police respond, Chuck has a flashback to Korea and Cornelia, claiming he is sick, takes him to her home, refusing to let Ginny see him. She keeps him in a mentally weakened state and starts annulment proceedings, based on the idea that Ginny kept her racial background a secret from Chuck—we know the truth, but the traumatized Chuck is essentially brainwashed by his mother and brother to follow the family line, and in the end, the case winds up in the courtroom where Ginny's lawyer (James Edwards) resorts to stripping Ginny to show that her skin is dark enough that Chuck had to have known the truth.

Hugo Haas, the director of this movie, has a cult following for his B-melodramas featuring bad and buxom female leads. Here, Julie London's character is the good girl, but she plays the role of the put-upon wife with passivity and glumness, and a spark of bad girl "oomph" would have been welcome. The other actors, with the occasional exception of Agnes Moorehead, also register drably, so while it's difficult to be critical of the movie's anti-racist intentions, one wishes that there was more energy in the performances. Barrymore (son of John and father of Drew), like London, is more or less left at sea by what I take to be listless direction by Haas. I suppose it's a good thing that Barrymore doesn't go off the deep end in his portrayal of the damaged rich boy, but his character is one-note all the way through. Dean Jones is better, but he's hampered by the inconsistencies of his character who seems to be on Barrymore's side in the beginning but soon plants himself in Moorehead's camp for no compelling reason. Nat King Cole is fine in a thankless role as a nightclub perfomer—he gets to sing, but oddly, Julie London, known for her sultry vocal stylings, does not. Of course, the biggest problem here is that London is, as others have said, one of the whitest women around, so even though she is darkened a bit with makeup, she really wasn't the best choice for the role. The best scene, and the one that almost tips it into camp classic territory, is the courtroom scene at the end in which Edwards (giving a fine performance) literally rips her dress off to show the judge her skin. This film is a real curiosity piece—not a classic, but interesting.

Thursday, January 04, 2018


Banker Robert Norman is in his library talking to his canary when he is shot to death. The family assumes it's suicide, but Inspector Winton and his associate McKay realize it's murder. There are plenty of suspects, including a housekeeper, a mysterious woman who visited Norman just before he was killed, and two old acquaintances of Norman's who were houseguests. We soon find out that Norman was the central figure in an unusual pact: years ago, bad financial advice he gave to four friends led to them all losing money. They put their remaining money in a trust and five years later, they would share equally in the money they all had made since then. The two houseguests, Perrin and Sanders, were there because the pact was ending at midnight of the next evening. The other two men are scheduled to arrive the next day. Gregg, who shows up next, has been a failure and has been bugging Norman for an advance on his share of the money. The fourth, Jerome, arrives rattled after claiming he'd been shot at. The mystery woman is reporter Claire Haines who has come back to the house hoping to get a headline story on Norman's death. Just as Jerome is about to confide who he thinks the killer is, he is shot from the window and drops dead. With the money from the pact about to be distributed, Winton can't figure out why any of the beneficiaries would want to have killed Norman, but it turns out that Norman had a son who fell into disgrace in China and has been imprisoned, but now is apparently free—and maybe behind the murders.

This is a serviceable B-mystery with decent performances and a plot that isn't overly complex. What it mainly lacks is atmosphere—taken in a different direction, this might have made a dandy little "old dark house" thriller, as it's pretty much set entirely in Norman's large house which has its own name (River House—not very imaginative but still a proper name). Scenes that take place in the dark aren't shot to take advantage of that aspect of the setting. At heart, it's a Charlie Chan mystery with a fairly colorless lead detective. Basil Sydney is OK as Winton but he’s not really a go-getter. The rest of the cast is nondescript except for Alastair Sim (the 1950 SCROOGE); this was his first movie and he does stand out a bit, showing a flair for some mild comic relief without making his character ridiculous. A generally enjoyable hour of mild mystery. Pictured are Sim and Sydney. [YouTube]

Tuesday, January 02, 2018


This British B-film is another poor man's CASABLANCA with wartime intrigue and romantic entanglements playing out in French North Africa, just before the Allies invaded, so the complicated morality of Vichy France, theoretically not under German command, plays a part in the proceedings. American artist Susanne Foster (Carla Lehmann) is alone in the home of relatives in Algiers when British agent Alan Thurston (James Mason) breaks in, on the run from the Germans. She allows him to hide while Dr. Mueller and his men search for him. After they leave, Alan reveals the movie's MacGuffin: a dead comrade's camera with a picture on it of something that the Germans want. He knows who has it, a movie starlet named Maritza, but he thinks she's waiting  to sell it to the highest bidder, so Susanne agrees to visit Maritza, on the pretext of wanting her to model, and steal the camera. This, of course, gets Susanne entangled in Alan's espionage; she is leered at by a German officer, briefly held captive by Mueller, and eventually runs into Henri, an old flame.  All the time, she keeps up with Alan and mocks his wispy mustache while he deals with his mistress, a waitress named Yvette who is desperate to hold on to Alan even as she senses that he is falling for Susanne. The MacGuffin leads to a secret meeting of Allied commanders at what is constantly described as a "lonely house" on the coastline; can our heroes stop the Nazis from disrupting the coming invasion of North Africa?

Despite the constant promise of action, the movie is slow going, mostly episodic build-up with little payoff—even an escape from the Casbah and a climactic car chase are underdone. But the characters and actors kept me interested. The young James Mason is quite dashing and light on his feet, and I didn't even mind the much-mocked mustache (which he eventually shaves off); Canadian actor Carla Lehmann only made a handful of movies in the 1940s and apparently went on to stage and TV, but she holds down the fort nicely here with a combination of wide-eyed excitement and calming gravity. Among the supporting players, standouts are Pamela Stirling as Yvette, Leslie Bradley as Henri, and Walter Rilla as Mueller. I would have been happy with any of them having their roles expanded. Definitely not a film noir, despite its presence on some noir lists (I guess because most of it takes place at night), but a fairly decent B-spy thriller. [Streaming]

Friday, December 29, 2017


The week before Christmas, wealthy businessman James Pidgeon finds out he is no longer wealthy; due in part to his family's spendthrift ways, he is headed toward bankruptcy though he has told no one yet. He is pinning his hopes on his rich dying uncle, but James' obnoxious son Reggie returns from the uncle's deathwatch with bad news: the uncle has died but left all his money (five million dollars) to a child actress named Florrie Watson whom he knew in his youth. The catch: no one knows where this woman is, or even if she's still alive. According to the will, if she is not found in "a reasonable time," the money will go to James. In exchange for a sizeable kickback, the attorney agrees to define "reasonable time" as one week. Meanwhile, at home, James' wife Clara has taken in a charity case for Christmas week in order to impress the visiting fiancĂ© of her daughter Therese. The man is Anthony Marchand, a once-famous actor fallen on hard times—he has a limp and a drinking problem. He has few possessions but clings to his actorly dignity, and soon he has ingratiated himself with the Pidgeon family. When he finds out about Florrie, he even agrees to lend a hand to James' plan: find Florrie, pose as long-lost relatives, and take her in for Christmas so she won’t be found during the week and the uncle's money will revert to James. Florrie, herself experiencing hard times, is found and is grateful for the family's attentions, but when a newspaper story breaks about the search, the family decamps to an old country house for the duration. Unfortunately, a pair of detectives is on their trail. Can a happy ending be in store for all three factions—Florrie, Marchand, and the family?

TCM showed this on Christmas Eve, too late for me to watch and write up on this blog by the 25th. This unsung Christmas movie from Republic Pictures, known mostly for westerns and action B-films, is unusual and worth seeing, even though it will never replace holiday favorites like It's a Wonderful Life or The Bishop's Wife. The main roles are well taken care of. Eugene Pallette and Billie Burke as the Pidgeons are fine, and Joseph Schildkruat (the villainous adulterer in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER) is excellent as Marchand. Ona Munson (Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND) is good as Florrie, as is Raymond Walburn as Willie, Burke's freeloading brother. But the younger people are a mixed bag. Ruth Terry is fine as Therese, but David Holt (Reggie) is uncharismatic, as is Ann Gillis as Angela, the snarky younger daughter. (Gillis later played Gary Lockwood’s mother in a brief scene in 2001.) Worst of all is Robert Livingston, a player in many Republic B-westerns, as Therese's soldier boyfriend—between his lazy acting and his underwritten character, he practically fades into oblivion before our eyes in every scene he's in.

One reason why this film has not remained a Christmas staple, even though the holiday remains front and center in the narrative, is that there is nothing magical about it—no angels, no ghosts, no Santa Clauses, no Scrooges. Marchand promises to be a mysterious character, but though he is slightly eccentric, he winds up being altogether earthbound and the focus slips away from him in the last half, though Schlidkraut (pictured above right) has a nice moment near the end when he lectures the family on their duty to Florrie by briefly enacting the story of Marley's ghost from A Christmas Carol. (There is also a lovely, snowy caroling sequence late in the film.) In fact, the movie feels more like a retread of a screwball comedy like MY MAN GODFREY—which featured Pallette in the patriarch role—than like a cozy holiday story. Though definitely not taken at a screwball pace, the movie remains light, and a couple of amusing lines stood out to me. Therese describes Marchand as wearing "poverty with all the charm of an Inverness cape." And Florrie, happy for a comfortable place to sleep, says "On a bed like that, not even a guilty conscience could keep me awake," to which Clara replies (in Billie Burke's tweeting voice), "What an amusing way of phrasing it!" The sets, of the family mansion and of the country house, add a lot of atmosphere. Memorable in a pleasant way; mostly recommended for those looking for something a little different for the holidays. (Pictured at left are Walburn, Burke, and Pallette.) [TCM]

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service (Ronald Reagan) is sent on the trail of some "queer stuff": counterfeit American money coming over the border from Mexico, made with stolen engraving plates. Brass and his comic relief buddy Gabby (Eddie Foy Jr.) meet up with Crockett, another agent who fears he is being followed by the bad guys. To allay suspicions about Bancroft, he and Crockett stage a fistfight at the Silver Slipper, a saloon which is a front for the counterfeiters. Unfortunately during the fight, the lights go out and Crockett is shot to death. Bancroft, realizing he's a suspect, takes off on a train for Santa Margarita, but two members of the crime ring are also on the train and they tip off the cops about Bancroft's presence. He jumps off the train and is picked up on the road by a kindly mission priest—who is actually Parker, the head of the ring. Bancroft escapes again but is shot; the bad guys think he's dead, but the bullet hits his Spanish/English dictionary (!) and he just plays dead. Eventually Gabby shows up, and, in a move out of THE 39 STEPS, Brass forces Elaine, an innocent bystander, to help him wrap the case up. The second of four Bancroft B-movies that Reagan made (all released between March 1939 and June 1940), this has a bad reputation largely because Reagan himself is on record has calling it the worst film he made. But in my eyes, Warners' B-movie unit rarely made a truly bad film, and while this one may not rank with the very best, it's good enough not to be a waste of time. Like the first in the series, it's short and fast paced, like a serial with all the tedious stuff cut out. Also as in the first film, the romance element here is minimal—the heroine (Rosella Towne) doesn't even enter the picture until about 45 minutes into the 58 minute movie. Released as part of a Warner Archive DVD set of all four Brass Bancroft films, and well worth purchasing for B-movie fans. [DVD]

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Miss Jeffers, head of window dressing at McGuire's, a large Manhattan department store, is retiring, and the natty but tightly-wound Mr. Finch will choose between two employees to take over her position. One is Sloan Van Doren, a young ambitious woman seemingly from an upper-crust background who is dating a rich jerk; the other is Jake Dooley, a handsome, single, laid-back guy who seems to take nothing seriously. The two meet on occasion in the mornings when they both have friendly interactions with Mac, the lowly but upbeat window-washer. They also both chat regularly with Rita, the women's restroom attendant who treats both to them almost like her own children. As December begins, Finch pits the two against each other: each week until Christmas Eve, both will come up with holiday window displays, and whoever's work generates the most sales will get the job. For the first display, Sloan stays up all night creating an elaborate design, while Jake waits until morning and dashes an idea off on a napkin. To Sloan's dismay, Finch likes Jake's idea better, and the rivalry ramps up a bit. (And if you don’t want [SPOILERS], stop reading here and just know that, as in all Hallmark movies, love and Christmas conquer all.)

But soon we learn more about these two. Sloan actually comes from a working-class family (she made up her last name to sound tonier) and Rita the washroom lady is her mother—though Sloan has told no one, not even her boyfriend. Jake is temporarily homeless and sleeps in a bedroom display at McGuire's and only Mac knows. Of course, romantic sparks begin to fly between the two, tempered by the fact that they are both pursuing the same job. It's a Hallmark Christmas movie so we know they'll wind up together, and the job thing will work itself out. But this feels a little smarter than the average TV rom-com. The dialogue is a little sharper and snarkier than usual; my favorite line is Finch to Sloan: "Is there no end to your gratuitous pleasantries?" The characters are nicely developed; most of their secrets are revealed by the halfway point, but the reveals themselves are fun. In the opening shot, we see Jake enjoying a wake-up moment on what we assume is his midtown balcony, but we discover later that he was actually standing on a department store balcony near where he sleeps. We see Rita interact with Sloan a couple of times before we realize they are mother and daughter.

But what really sets this above the norm is the acting. Chyler Leigh (a regular on Supergirl) comes off as a little more vulnerable and sensitive than most Hallmark heroines—she's always likeable even when she's being snarky. Paul Campbell (from the Knight Rider reboot) is cute, and as whimsical as Hallmark heroes are allowed to get, lest they come off a little too fey. Naomi Judd is fine as Mama Rita, and Matty Finochio—whom I've never seen before—is particularly fun as the fussy, pompous Finch. There’s a running gag involving "terdunkin," or turkey deep fried in Dunkin' Donuts batter. I admit to a soft spot when it comes to movies set in department stores (the Marx Brothers' THE BIG STORE, the 80s Christmas movie EBBIE), and as a kid, I fantasized about being trapped in a department store overnight and having to sleep in one of the furniture display rooms, so the movie may have charmed me more than it will the average viewer, but it’s definitely worth a shot for Hallmark fans. (Pictured at top left are Campbell, Finochio and Leigh) [Hallmark]

Friday, December 22, 2017


Walter Brennan is the ailing patriarch of his family, essentially on his deathbed, and he has called home his four daughters for Christmas: sweet young college student Sally Field, promiscuous playgirl Jill Haworth, alcoholic mess Jessica Walter, and oldest sister (and seemingly the most together of the four) Eleanor Parker. None of the women have remained close to their father because they blame him for the suicide of their mother years ago. But now Brennan has remarried (to Julie Harris, whose first husband died under suspicious circumstances), and he tells his daughters that she's slowly poisoning him—he wants them to kill her before she succeeds. Even though there's a (young and handsome) local doctor (John Fink) in town that the sisters are friendly with, Brennan won't allow him in. The daughters aren't sure whether or not to believe Brennan, though Harris does come off as a bit aloof and perhaps sinister. However, she breaks her composure when Haworth openly accuses Harris offing her husband; her reply: "The next time I'm accused of murder, I won't be the one to wake up screaming!" Old family tensions add to the oppressive atmosphere: one sister attempts suicide, and another decides to leave during a storm. But before anyone can get away, a figure wearing a yellow rain slicker starts murdering people with a pitchfork.

This is a good example of a genre that doesn't really exist anymore: the network TV-horror movie. More to the point, it has morphed into the Lifetime "women’s thriller," which isn’t quite the same thing. This is not gory, nor is it particularly holiday-themed—there’s a Christmas tree in the house, and that’s about it; even the weather is rainy rather than snowy. But it is atmospheric, and the acting is excellent all around, even if the visual style tends toward the close-ups you find in soap operas. Harris is underused and Haworth is just OK, but Field, Parker and Walter go full-tilt, stopping just before they go over the top. This was one of Walter Brennan's last roles before his death two years later, and he's good—albeit in a relatively small role—playing against type (either a friendly grandpa or a hayseed Western sidekick). Sadly, this only seems to be available in a murky print on YouTube, but it’s still worth watching. Pictured from left: Field, Haworth, Parker, Walter. [YouTube]

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Janet Leigh is a secret comparison shopper for a department store. She's also a war widow and single mom who is dating Wendell Corey, a nice if unexciting lawyer who is angling to win Leigh as his wife. One day, as she's buying a toy train at a rival store—which she plans on returning the next day—the toy department clerk (Robert Mitchum) becomes suspicious but the two seem to have a spark and he sells it to her anyway. That night, Corey proposes to Leigh; she’s on the fence about him, but her son (Gordon Gebert) is against it. Leigh returns the train the next day, and when Mitchum gets fired for not acting on his instinct the day before, he joins her in her shopping. That night, he tracks her down at her apartment where Corey is present and the two men begin subtly jockeying for the affections of Leigh and her son. Corey is stable but boring; Mitchum is a drifting dreamer (he wants to be a boatbuilder) and a bit whimsical in a masculine way, but seems to bring a needed jolt to Leigh's staid life. Guess who ultimately wins her heart?

This feels like the template for some of today's Christmas TV-movies. It's a romantic comedy featuring a career woman (though not as high-powered as today's heroines) torn between two men—the holiday aspect is basically secondary here, as in some Hallmark films. One big difference: nowadays, the old boyfriend is usually a creep or an asshole, but here, Corey is just boring (like Bill Pullman was in Sleepless in Seattle). My personal reaction to Mitchum (pictured with Leigh) may have colored my reaction to the romantic triangle; Mitchum's gruff sexiness didn't overcome his somewhat unsavory aura, so I was basically rooting for Leigh to dump both men and hold out for a sexy but stable dreamer (like today's Hallmark heroes). There's a nice screwball feel to a sequence in which Mitchum winds up in police custody and Corey gets him out, but though light in tone throughout, the movie often looks drab and dark. Henry O'Neill and Harry Morgan have small roles. As a Christmas movie, this is a bit lacking in holiday magic; as a post-war romantic comedy, the personalities of Mitchum and Corey throw it off a bit, so enjoy it as a nice early showcase for Janet Leigh. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Mitch (Robin Dunne) is a DJ at a college radio station in Harrison; Maggie (Brooke Nevin) is his assistant (or so it seems, since, like many plotpoints in this movie, their working relationship is never made clear). It's Christmas Eve and Maggie needs a ride home, so Mitch, who loves Christmas thanks to his Christmas-loving mom, offers to take her. When they wind up stuck on the highway, he takes a detour into a small town and promises to give her the best Christmas ever. They make a snowman and do snow angels and such, and he even manages to get her home in time for Christmas Eve festivities. They part a bit awkwardly, not quite acknowledging an attraction, and he heads home to Mom. But he never returns to school in January.

Flash forward ten years: Maggie is a reporter in Harrison and one day in December she flips on the radio and hears the new morning DJ, none other than Mitch. She runs into him at a coffee shop and discovers that he's become a Christmas Grinch, but she doesn't know why. To cheer him up, she starts sending him a homemade gift a day, each one reminiscent of something they did in the past, and signs them from "Your Secret Santa." Mitch is irritated by the gifts but his boss decides they'd make a great publicity gimmick and contacts the local paper. Guess who's assigned to write a series of human interest stories about Mitch and his Secret Santa? Maggie, of course, who can't turn the assignment down because her paper is about to be bought by a big syndicate, and she needs to prove her worth to keep her job. Slowly Mitch's cold-heartedness starts to melt, but when he finds out her secret, he thinks she's done it solely to get a story and that puts an end to their budding relationship and to Mitch's newly-kindled feelings for Christmas—or does it?

This Hallmark Christmas movie doesn't quite have all the Hallmark genre criteria of the big city holiday movie, but it's got its own conventions that you can tick off: romance between clean-cut, nice looking leads—but not distractingly beautiful or sexy; a small town location; jazzy covers of secular Christmas songs used in the background; snow; disrupted plans—sometimes due to the snow; a last-minute bump in the road to happiness; a happy ending. The writing is a little sloppy in terms of plot and character development. For example, Mitch can't figure out who is sending the gifts even though the only person he knows in town is Maggie—plotwise, this is probably to allow a rival for Mitch's affections (a publicity-hungry yoga instructor) to stake a claim, but it's still handled awkwardly. And how does it take the entire length of the movie for Maggie to figure out what made Mitch a Grinch? I figured it out (and you will too) about ten seconds after he makes his first anti-Christmas remarks on the radio. I was only rooting for the two to get together because the genre demands it—their relationship is never presented in a realistic or compelling fashion. Nevin and Dunne are adequate leads, though the supporting cast virtually disappears into the background except for Geri Hall as Mitch's manager who deserved a bigger role. Still, I can’t bring myself to say that I disliked this movie; how can you dislike a cute puppy because it's not playful enough? It’s still a cute puppy. [Hallmark]