Monday, April 24, 2017

SPRING PARADE (1940)

Young farm girl Ilonka (Deanna Durbin) brings her goat to market and while there has her fortune told: she will find her true love in Vienna; he will be an artist; and love will "hit you with a stick." She doesn't really believe the prediction, but when she lies down for a nap in a hay wagon, the wagon driver takes off for Vienna, not realizing she's asleep in back. The driver Latislav (S.Z. Sakall) is a baker who dreams of becoming the royal baker—he already bakes salt bread rolls for the Emperor—and he lets Ilonka stay and work at the bakery with his two very young nephews and Jenny (Anne Gwynne), his assistant. When the Army band goes marching by in the mornings, Jenny flirts with a handsome drummer named Harry (Robert Cummings), even though she's practically engaged to Count Zorndof. Through a comedy of errors, Harry winds up on a date with Ilonka rather than Jenny. He's embarrassed by her "country hick" ways in the big city, so they don't exactly hit it off right away, though later, when Ilonka realizes that Harry is an aspiring composer, she begins to think that he might be the artist she is destined to be with. Thanks to Ilonka's meddling, comedies of errors continue until the Emperor himself has to straighten things out.

I'm not a big Durbin fan, though to be fair I've only seen a couple of her movies. She doesn't bring much to the table except pleasantness—she has pleasing looks, a pleasing voice, and, generally, a pleasant persona. She's not bad but she leaves a bit of a personality hole in the middle of this operetta-ish tale. Actually, her character is fairly obnoxious in her single-minded drive; she seems more in love with the idea of fulfilling her fortune than with Harry. I've always found Cummings to be rather bland as well, though he's more fun here than usual. Sakall (pictured with Durbin) is Sakall—if you like his cuddly Germanic grandpa shtick (and I generally do), you'll like him here. Gwynne is fine, and good support is offered by Henry Stephenson (as the Emperor), Franklin Pangborn, Reginald Denny and Allen Joslyn. There are a few songs, including a fun dance number in the opening with Durbin and Mischa Auer and a song based on the Blue Danube Waltz. The two nephews are played by child actors Billy Lenhart and Kenneth Brown, who were known professionally as Butch and Buddy, and they are fun—when Sakall introduces them to Durbin, one of them asks, "Did you win her at the fair?" Fluffy and light and painless. [TCM]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

GENTLEMAN’S FATE (1931)

Rich, handsome John Gilbert is about to propose to Lelia Hyams when he gets a call from his guardian that changes his life: Gilbert isn't really an orphan, but the son of an unsavory bootlegger who is dying and wants to see Gilbert before he dies. When he visits his father on his deathbed, Gilbert also discovers he has a brother (Louis Wolheim), a gruff underling of his father's who wants Gilbert to join the business. After Dad dies, Gilbert does slowly get involved in the business, trying to keep his activities secret from Hyams, but when he agrees to take a rap and go to jail, she leaves him. Soon, in a trajectory that will be familiar to anyone who has read or seen The Godfather, Gilbert has taken over the bootlegging racket with gusto, and even killed a man who worked for his rival (John Miljan). Miljan doesn't take kindly to this and send his ex-moll (Anita Page) to spy on Gilbert; instead she falls in love. But when Miljan plans a more exacting revenge, a romantic ending is not in the cards. Gilbert is fine here, as is the bulldog-faced tough guy Wolheim who died of cancer before this film was released. Marie Provost provides nice comic relief as a secretary. Favorite exchange: "Say, Mike, are you plastered?"; "Sister, I'm stuccoed!" [TCM]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

THE MIND BENDERS (1963)

We first see Prof. Sharpey, a well-regarded research scientist at Oxford, looking dazed on a train station platform. In a train compartment, he still seems out of it, and eventually he throws himself off the train and is killed. It turns out that government agent Hall (John Clements) suspected him of being a spy, and Sharpey had a satchel full of money with him on the train, so Hall questions Sharpey's colleague Longman (Dirk Bogarde); the two had been working on sensory deprivation experiments where a subject is immersed in a tank of warm water and shut off from all sight, sound, and touch for hours at a time. Longman believes that rather than espionage, Sharpey was behaving strangely because of the "reduction of sensation" trials. One scientist, in filmed testimony, was heard in the tank babbling about seeing angels, and Longman himself says their experiments are concerned with "physics of the soul." Longman agrees to be put in the tank himself so Hall can observe, but Hall colludes with Longman's friend and assistant Tate (Michael Bryant) and the two attempt to brainwash Longman just to see if it can be done. When he comes out of the tank in a weakened mental state, they plant a hypnotic suggestion in his mind: that he finds his wife repulsive and has never really loved her. Six months later, unfortunately, the brainwashing has worked too well.

Don’t let the title or advertising fool you—this is not a movie about recreational drugs, and though technically it could be considered science fiction, its traditional sci-fi elements are minimal. It winds up being a cross between "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "The Manchurian Candidate"; an interesting if stagy marital melodrama, fueled by the brainwashing experiments. Though the set-up is plausible, what is not plausible, and comes close to ruining the movie for me, is that Longman's friend Tate would not have realized in six months time that the hypnotic suggestion had worked. The last third of the film, set at a drunken party at which all the principal figures, including Longman's pregnant wife (Mary Ure) and his current mistress, come together, is basically a long night's journey into day in which the damage that the experiment has done finally comes to light. This whole thing winds up feeling misguided—either more personal backstory or more science-fiction (at times it feels like an early version of ALTERED STATES) might have make things gel better. Bogarde is a bit too intense, though Bryant and Ure are fine. Not particularly believable or compelling; though not awful, this can be skipped. Pictured are Bogarde and Bryant. [TCM]

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE VANISHING SHADOW (1934)

We're back in Serials-land: more cliffhangers, more fisticuffs, more repetition of action, and more weak writing. If this is your thing, keep reading—it's perhaps the earliest adventure serial I've seen and though it's nothing special, it does have a couple moments of interest. Professor Van Dorn is a slightly loony scientist who has created several inventions including a Destroying Ray which, yes, destroys things—only living things, leaving inanimate objects unharmed—a ray that burns through metal, and a huge but clunky robot. Stanley Stanfield is an engineer working with Van Dorn who has invented a Vanishing Ray machine which, when strapped onto a person, causes them to vanish—but leaves their shadow visible (so the title is a complete lie: the shadow NEVER vanishes!). Stanley's father, a crusading newspaper editor, was driven to an early death by corrupt businessman Wade Barnett, and now Barnett wants Stanley's newspaper stocks so he can take over the paper and stop it from continuing to muddy his reputation. But Barnett's daughter Gloria, ashamed of her father, has taken a false name and, when Stanley comes to her rescue when she faints in middle of a busy street, the two become friendly and she agrees to help him deal with her father.

All of the above happens in the first 20 minutes. The rest of this 4-hour serial consists of repetitive episodes in which Barnett and his chief goon Dorgan try to get their hands on the stocks, Stanley uses the Vanishing Ray to spy on people, and Van Dorn wrecks havoc with his inventions. I must admit that the central conflict, over stocks and bonds, is different from the usual serials concern with taking over the world, but it's a rather low-key plot that moves incredibly slowly. The hero, played by Onslow Stevens, seems more perturbed than heroic, and in fact spends most of the last two climactic chapters tied to a chair as things happen around him. Richard Cramer enjoys himself as the thug Dorgan. Van Dorn (James Durkin, gleefully over-the-top at times, and pictured above with Stevens) is on the good guys' side, but is also a little insane and quite bloodthirsty. When he agrees to work with Stanley against Barnett, he says enthusiastically that he wants to be "judge, jury and executioner." Barnett (Walter Miller) keeps promising his daughter that he'll reform, but despite the fact that he keeps breaking that promise over and over again, she keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. Barnett's affection for his daughter, and his attempt to make sure that his thugs don’t hurt her, provides an interesting plotpoint here and there. Ada Ince, as Gloria, has little to do and is not very good at doing what she does. The robot is seen early on, but doesn't get unleashed until near the end. It's goofy and not all that scary looking, even though all the characters are scared shitless of it. At seven or eight chapters, with a brisker pace, this might have been more fun. As it is, recommended for viewers who are already fans of the classic-era serial. [YouTube]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

CHEYENNE (1947)

aka THE WYOMING KID

We are told that Wyoming Territory in 1867 is a magnet for "lawless hordes" drifting west; however, there are no hordes in this movie, just a small gang of bandits and a mysterious outlaw named The Poet who steals money and gold from Wells Fargo wagons and leaves short poems instead. Jim Wylie (Dennis Morgan) is a gambler who gets into a spot of trouble in Laramie, but instead of getting arrested or run out of town, a Wells Fargo agent asks him to go to Cheyenne where the Poet is supposedly headed and work undercover on exposing him. Jim takes a coach to Cheyenne with the sexy chorus girl Emily (Janis Paige) and the attractive but standoffish Ann (Jane Wyman). Along the way, their coach is beset by small-time bandits, led by Sundance (Arthur Kennedy). Ann berates Jim for not using his gun to stop the robbery, but as it turns out, Sundance and his men wind up with no money, just another note from the Poet. That night, Jim spots two men he recognizes from the gang, follows them back to Sundance's hiding place, and claims that he is the Poet. But his plan is upset a bit when he is surprised to discover Ann negotiating with Sundance on behalf of the Poet—Ann says she's The Poet's wife! She goes along with his deception for her own reasons, but who really is the Poet? And what is it he wants?

That’s about as far as I should take the plot summary because the coming plot twists are what make this worth watching. Some are predictable, some are surprising—a fairly major character is killed off halfway through—so the elements of a crime thriller tend to override the Western genre conventions. The acting is solid; Morgan, Kennedy, Paige, and Bruce Bennett, who plays a Wells Fargo inspector, are all fine. Paige is the very personification of vivacious and when she's off screen, the movie's energy level suffers a bit. Wyman is rather flat, partly perhaps due to the secrets the character is keeping, but even when all that's out of the way, her performance still feels lacking—perhaps in comparison to Paige. Alan Hale has some fun as a sheriff, and you'll recognize Barton MacLane and John Ridgely. Paige (pictured above with Morgan) gets to sing a couple of songs, and Max Steiner wrote chipper but wildly overused theme music that plays whenever we see the stagecoach on the road, which is often. This could use some judicious editing, especially in the last half-hour, but it's certainly watchable. [TCM]

Monday, April 10, 2017

THE TENDER TRAP (1955)

Frank Sinatra is a wealthy playboy theatrical agent who lives in a fancy high-rise penthouse in Manhattan and is dating (let’s be more honest than they could be in 50s Hollywood and say, "sleeping with") as least four different women, and he's turned rotating through them into a fine art. He seems most serious about professional violinist Celeste Holm, but even she is often left dangling. However, his schedule is shaken a bit by the entrance of two people in his life. First, his childhood best friend (David Wayne) arrives to stay with him for a couple of weeks—his wife suggested that after eleven years of marriage, they take a short vacation from each other. Not sure whether this is a sign of long-term dissatisfaction, Wayne seems generally at odds, and may be at least a little jealous of Sinatra's swinging lifestyle. The second interloper in Sinatra’s life is struggling actress and singer Debbie Reynolds who lands a starring role in a new musical and becomes Sinatra's newest client. Reynolds is lovely and lively, and though she still lives with her parents, she knows what she wants: a husband, three kids, and a house in Scarsdale, and on a timetable to boot. As Sinatra starts ignoring Holm to spend time with Reynolds, Wayne finds himself smitten with Holm.

What makes this silly non-farcical romantic farce worth watching is the cast. I've never found Sinatra to be a particularly compelling actor, but he's perfect here, where he seems to be barely acting—the playboy life he leads fits exactly the persona Sinatra projected for most of his life. Reynolds is her usual bright and cheery self, though the platitudes about marriage that she has to mouth are disturbing, and Holm is fine as the one mentally mature person in the bunch. The revelation for me was David Wayne, whom I mostly know from his later role as Ellery Queen’s father on TV and from his earlier role as what I interpreted as the gay best friend who acts like he's in love with Katherine Hepburn in ADAM’S RIB. His role here is substantial—and sometimes, he's more interesting than the Sinatra character—and he's up to the challenge. The look of the movie is a little strange; based on a play, the film remains quite stagy, so many of the scenes are basically 3 or 4 people walking around the apartment talking. But the movie is shot in widescreen so we get a big empty expanse around the actors. Granted, the apartment is well-appointed and very modern, but visually the film is fairly inert. Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams) has a small role as Sinatra's dogwalker. If you can get past the 50s attitudes about women and marriage, this is OK. [TCM]

Friday, April 07, 2017

OVER THE MOON (1939)

Jane (Merle Oberon) has been taking care of her ailing grandfather and living in his large but decrepit mansion in isolated rural Yorkshire. She's been feeling sorry for herself as she has also wound up as caretaker to his servants who are either also ailing or act like it, and she thinks that life is passing her by. Freddie, the young local doctor (Rex Harrison), has taken a shine to Jane and, when the old man dies, offers to sell his practice so they can get married and move to London. But when it turns out that the grandfather has left her 18 million pounds, things change. Jane makes headlines as a "Cinderella" girl, and attracts various hangers-on who want a piece of her fortune. Freddie is turned off by all the hubhub and the two go their separate ways. He winds up in an unfulfilling job attending to rich hypochondriacs in Switzerland, and she goes to Monte Carlo and deals with gold-digging men. Of course, true love will eventually win out. This early Technicolor romantic comedy produced by Alexander Korda (then Oberon's husband) is cute but undistinguished. The plot is similar to the template that would become screwball comedy, but this is played too slowly to be mistaken for that, and the direction lacks style or fizz. Still, the leading pair is fine, and the supporting players (Ursula Jeans, Robert Douglas, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ethel Griffies) carry some of the dead spots. [Criterion streaming]

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

ATTACK FROM SPACE (1965)

First, a word about me and Japanese sci-fi movies: I tend not to watch them unless they are accompanied by the guys and gals and robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, in which case, try to keep me away. ("Gamera is really neat/Gamera is full of meat!") I have seen and appreciated the classics GODZILLA and MOTHRA, and a handful of others—I watched GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL because, you know, that title. But typically, the cheap effects, the laughably bad monsters, the presence of young children as major characters, and the terrible dubbing (these movies would be improved quite a bit if they were released in subtitled versions with the original Japanese audio), all make this genre more suited to an evening of campy commenting than serious entertainment, scares, or awe. This movie was recommended to me by YouTube based on the number of public domain B-movies I've seen, so I watched it unaware for a few minutes of what it was. By the time I realized what it was, I couldn't take my eyes from the screen.

In the opening sequence, a narrator tells us that the Sapphirians, an alien race bent on conquest of the universe, are heading to Earth to start a nuclear war that will destroy us. However, from the peaceful planet Emerald comes a humanoid hero called Starman to save us. Starman has a heavy-duty wristwatch which lets him pretty much do everything that Superman can, including fly through space in just tights and a cape. On Earth, a group of men are already at work clearing the way for the Sapphirians by kidnapping Dr. Yamanaka, creator of a super-powered spaceship, and two of his children, to force him to work on a super-duper ship for them. The Sapphirians are a militaristic Nazi-like group who warn the world what they're up to, then destroy a mountain in the Himalayas to show what they're capable of.  As this is a Japanese 60s movie, the kids get involved by plotting with one of Yamanaka's assistants to free their father, being held under hypnotic control. Eventually Starman finds the ship, boards it, and kicks off a 15 minute ass-whooping scene in which he uses fists, martial arts moves, and guns to decimate the Sapphirians. Yamanaka, his young son, and his assistant escape in a spaceship; after Starman has finally kicked hundreds of Sapphirian asses, he flies the daughter through space to join her dad and destroys the Sapphirian ship.

Before this movie turned into a typical Japanese SF kiddie-movie, it grabbed me with its opening sequence. It mostly consists of tediously delivered exposition, but the visuals—of the surface of the planets, ships drifting through space, the cheap but almost nightmarish look of the peace council on Emerald (pictured above right), and the shots of the glowering Starman flitting through the galaxy—are dreamy and almost surreal. I discovered later that the movie is actually two episodes of a TV show knit together, and that Starman had other small and big-screen adventures. This helps explain why the movie feels like an old-fashioned movie serial with occasional sequences that barely feel related to each other. In fact, in my notes, I scribbled down this observation: "Imagine if Ed Wood had been hired by Toho Studios to make a 12-chapter sci-fi serial, but then was told he had to cut it down to 75 minutes." Actually, this film’s technical aspects are several notches above those of an Ed Wood movie, and the production design, though distinctly low budget, shows some flair. But there is an overarching slap-dashedness to everything that makes you think any moment now, the set will fall over on an actor. Big chunks of plot are dispensed with in a few sentences of spoken exposition. One scene of the bad guys face-checking a crowd of a hundred or so troops to find a disguised intruder plays out at length, practically in real time, and then it turns out that the intruder isn't even there. I have read that Starman's crotch was stuffed to make him seem more masculine (see picture at left), but I will leave verification of that to others who might have known the actor. This movie deserves a drubbing from MST3K—and apparently it has been mocked by the Rifftrax gang—but I still found it to be a semi-delightful surprise. If for nothing else, it should be seen for its epic concluding fight scene, with lots of fists that don't come anywhere near connecting with a jaw, and for the obvious dummies that Starman tosses hither and yon. [YouTube]

Monday, April 03, 2017

THE SHOOTING (1966)

Will (Warren Oates, at right), a former bounty hunter, returns to his camp to find his simple-minded buddy Coley (Will Hutchins, pictured below) cowering in fear in his tent: someone shot their buddy Leland Drum to death at the campfire. Now Will's brother Coigne has vanished—he and Drum may have been involved in the accidental death of a child in town. Will realizes that he's been followed to the camp, and indeed a woman in a black hat (Millie Perkins) arrives soon after. She explains that she's following someone but has had to shoot her injured horse and now needs a horse and a guide to keep going. She rather arrogantly demands that Will and Coley accompany her, and even though Will realizes that the horse she shot wasn't actually injured, they agree to help her. Will also picks up on the fact that the woman is signaling their presence to someone, and soon that someone shows up, a hired gun named Billy (Jack Nicholson). Relations between the four are a bit frosty and even tense, with Billy constantly at odds with Coley, and Will trying to keep things smoothed out. Eventually when the woman's horse goes lame, she takes Coley's horse and makes him stay behind in the burning hot desert. Will seems to sense that this journey will not end well for any of them, and he's right.

This is often referred to as an "existential Western" and by golly if it ain't. The plot outline is recognizably drawn from Western movie motifs—revenge, gunfights, lone woman in the company of men, wandering cowboys—and the landscapes (shot in Arizona) are just as lovely and foreboding as in any John Ford film. But aside from the laying out of a skeletal plot, nothing much really happens, and certainly, with the exception of Will, the characters don't get developed to any degree. It is often remarked upon that the director, Monte Hellman, had directed a stage version of Waiting for Godot in a Western setting before he made this film, and while this isn't as vague as Godot, there are similarities in the sense that people are waiting for something to happen and it doesn't happen. Except here, the people don’t wait in one place, they keep moving, and ultimately something does happen in the last five minutes, so fans of plot-driven narratives (most of us) will not be totally stymied, even if we never get a full recitation of the backstory of the characters. Oates is the main reason to stick with the film—he gives a grounding performance that gives us something to hang on to in this desolate, meaningless universe, um, I mean, in the lonely desert. Hutchins, probably best known for the 60s TV Western Sugarfoot, is surprisingly good in the "juvenile" role. Perkins is a bit stiff and artificial; Nicholson is Nicholson.

Hellman shot another Western back to back with this one, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, with Nicholson and Perkins (Jack also wrote the screenplay). It shares a similar tone of uncertainty with THE SHOOTING but while it has a somewhat more traditional story, it's also less interesting. Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson are two cowboys on the run, mistakenly assumed to be part of a group of outlaws. They take refuge with an isolated family (Perkins is the daughter) and try to hold out there while the law passes by. There is more gunplay here than in  THE SHOOTING, but despite having a more coherent plot, it feels longer and harder to get through. The two films are available on a nice Criterion DVD set. [DVD]

Friday, March 31, 2017

THE DEATH KISS (1932)

A well-dressed woman strolls up to a duded-up stranger on the street, kisses him on the mouth and walks away, saying she just couldn't resist. But it turns out that the kiss was a signal to a thug in a car who shoots the man dead. Then the camera pulls back and we see that we've been watching a movie scene being shot. But when they go to restage it for another take, the corpse doesn't get up. In fact, the actor, Myles Brent, has actually been shot dead. All the guns on the set are examined and contain blanks, so it appears he was shot by someone in hiding. The cops are called but studio writer Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who really wants to write detective novels, shows up and decides to compete with the police, with some sidekick help from Gully, the security guard. Among the suspects: the actress Marcia Lane—the one who bestowed the 'death kiss' on Brent, who was Brent's ex-wife and who might be in line for a big insurance payoff; studio manager Steiner (Bela Lugosi) who, with his thick European accent and slicked-back hair just seems a little sinister in general; Grossmith, the head of the studio; the director (Edward Van Sloan); and Chalmers, a former gaffer who was fired for showing up to work drunk but who was given a job on set out of pity by Lane. Soon another studio worker is found dead at his home after drinking poison; the cops assume it's suicide (since there is a suicide note) but Drew and Gully notice clues that indicate it's murder. Will the killer strike again?

This pre-Code B-mystery was marketed as a horror film to take advantage of Bela Lugosi's presence, but he actually has a fairly small role—though it’s fun to see him in a straight role for a change. It's also fun to see Lugosi reunited with his DRACULA co-stars Manners and Van Sloan (both of whom are pictured at right). I'm a fan of Manners so I enjoyed seeing him get a lead role for a change—though he is technically the leading man in movies like DRACULA, THE MUMMY and THE BLACK CAT, he is overshadowed in those by the villains and/or, as in DRACULA, by the leading lady. He gives his character enough personality that I'm sorry there weren't more Franklyn Drew mysteries. Ames is a bit of a sleepwalker here, and Van Sloan, like Lugosi, vanishes for long stretches, but there a number of good supporting performances from Alexander Carr (Grossmith), Harold Minjir (his flamingly gay assistant), Vince Barnett (Gully) and Al Hill (an assistant director). I'm not sure why this was put on Blu-Ray; the audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith is very good but the film itself hasn't been given much of a restoration. It does, however, have a handful of scenes featuring hand-tinting, including a startling moment when a film being projected catches fire and a burst of yellow-orange suddenly appears. Flashlights and guns also glow yellow in a couple of scenes. [Blu-Ray]