Thursday, May 18, 2017

AS THE EARTH TURNS (1934)

This is the story of a year in the lives of three families in rural Maine. Mark Shaw (David Landau) is a mature, hard-working farmer with a grumbling wife (Cora, his second) and a sweet, unfailingly pleasant daughter named Jen (Jean Muir). Cora's daughter Doris is less sweet; she's a discontented flirt who wants to get the hell out of Dodge. The second family is headed by Mark's brother George (Arthur Hohl) who is seen as lazy and shiftless by some, including his unsympathetic wife Millie. On a snowy winter evening, we're introduced to the third family, the Janowskis, led by young, sturdy Stan (Donald Woods) who has brought his older mother & father and younger siblings to their new home, a farm that needs a lot of work. The year is filled with incident, beginning when George has to shoot a crippled cow and Mark gives him one of his cows; this will allow George's family to get by, but it also means that Doris won't get to go to secretarial school in the big city, which tees her off no end. Mark's son Ed marries George's daughter Margaret, the much-loved schoolteacher; Doris flirts with the handsome college boy Ollie (Jen's brother) but gets nowhere, so later she flirts (and more) with Stan; Stan falls for Jen, and she for him, but she is oddly reticent about returning his interest. But wait! There’s more! Stan's dad collapses in the field on a hot summer day; Millie talks about leaving George; and after the Halloween dance in the village, tragedy strikes when lightning sets fire to a barn, leaving one family with nothing.

This 70 minute movie crams in what seems like an entire season's worth of TV soap opera plotlines. It moves along at a good clip, but the melodramatic events just keep piling up until it's difficult to care about some of the characters, many of whom could stand to be fleshed out more. For example, we never understand why Jen is so reluctant to pair up with Stan, until suddenly at the end, she's OK with it. We never know what's behind George's demeanor—maybe he really is just lazy, but Hohl's fairly subtle acting makes him seem more befuddled by life than an uncaring slacker. The relations of the family members were occasionally confusing—for the first 15 minutes, I thought that George was Mark's son, and it took me a while to figure out that Doris wasn’t flirting with her own blood brother (Ollie). This is a pre-Code film so some pre-marital hanky-panky in which Doris and another character indulge isn't exactly punished. Donald Woods and Jean Muir are very good—in fact, all the actors are fine; it was strange to see Landau playing a nice guy for a change. Clara Blandick (Oz's Auntie Em) is Mark's wife and William Janney (pictured) is a very appealing Ollie, though he has little to do. I enjoyed this, but wish they had given the narrative another 15 minutes in which to stretch out. [TCM]

Monday, May 15, 2017

PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952)

Lawyer Gary Merrill leaves his wife, who has confessed to having had an affair, and boards a plane to Los Angeles just to get away. When departure is delayed due to weather, he winds up chatting with three other passengers: showgirl Shelly Winters, medical doctor Michael Rennie, and novelty joke salesman Keenan Wynn. During the flight, and during an unscheduled layover due to more bad weather, the four form a bond—the obnoxious Wynn calls them the Four Musketeers—telling each other stories about their lives. Winters, who has never flown before and is very nervous, talks about her domineering mother-in-law (Evelyn Varden) who was the reason she left her husband to try and find success on Broadway. Despite getting a small role in a hit show, she has decided to return home and try to work things out. Rennie is suffering from guilt over a car accident with fatalities in which he was driving drunk, but told the police that his friend, who died in the crash, was actually driving. Wynn, who is very talkative in general, doesn't say much about his personal life, but shows off a picture of his young and healthy wife. They all board the plane one more time, but this time it crashes and Merrill is the only survivor of the four. In Los Angeles, he decides to try and contact the surviving spouses to provide closure, and in the process hears another side to each story.

This is a bit of an odd duck. It’s sort of an anthology film which tells three separate stories, like ENCORE, but, inspired by the success a few years earlier of A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, the stories are more closely tied together.  Some of the stories are more complex than others: Winters' situation proves to the most interesting as we get to hear, Roshomon style, a completely different take on events provided by the mother-in-law; Rennie's is the most traditionally melodramatic tale; Wynn's is barely a story at all, mostly an excuse for Bette Davis, as his widow, to appear in a supporting star role. Other supporting roles are taken by Beatrice Straight as Rennie's widow, Ted Donaldson as his confused and disillusioned son, and Craig Stevens as Winters' handsome husband. What works against the movie is the feeling that it's two different, slightly unbalanced films: the first half as the characters bond, and the second half with Merrill's visits. I think the first half is more effective, but I can't say why except that the wrap-ups to each story mostly feel predictable and anti-climactic. Still, recommended overall. Pictured, left to right: Wynn, Winters, Merrill and Rennie. [DVD]

Thursday, May 11, 2017

SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (1965)

In the year 2015, Interstellar Colony 1 is celebrating its first year in space on a mission to land on Earth 2, a planet with an atmosphere just like ours, with hopes that they can establish a settlement for escaping the overcrowding on Earth. The small crew is made up of 4 married couples, a few children—who are being trained in telepathy (!?)—and 4 people traveling in suspended animation. They're hoping that at least one of the couples will conceive a child during the trip, though what with some marital difficulties rearing their heads, that may not be so easy. A first-year party is being planned until Steve, a doctor, discovers that his wife Helen has a "pancreatic infection" and may only have a year to live. Steve think they should turn the ship around and take her back to Earth, but Captain Mead Ralston argues against it, noting that it was always the intention to let the seriously sick die in space. Helen desperately wants to have a child in the time she has, but Mead won't allow it, so she commits suicide. What with the crew feeling rather ambiguous about their leader, it isn't hard for Steve to lead a mutiny, but eventually Mead escapes and announces his plan to thaw out one of the four frozen passengers, another doctor, to replace Steve so he can be executed. Things don't quite go as planned.

Though this is a drab, low-budget affair with virtually no special effects, it is at least a little something different: a soap-opera space opera focusing on the interpersonal relationships of the astronauts. Unfortunately, the script is rather dull and the actors were not inspired by either the writing or the direction, and the whole thing just sort of sits there. At one point, we get some exposition concerning the organization Reformed United League Executive, or RULE, which is in charge of the flight, and which, according to one of the wives, has taken away all personal and collective freedoms. However, this plot thread is dropped, used only as a way to stigmatize the captain. Still, there are some interesting moments: a holographic clown entertains the children, there's the talking head of a cyborg in a glass case, and the un-thawing of the second doctor leads to exciting and deadly consequences. Bill Williams, father of William Katt, is lackluster as the captain, with only John Cairney standing out from the cast as Steve. No other online review mentions the telepathic games the children play, so maybe I dreamed that scene. At a little over an hour, this winds up feeling more like a TV pilot than a feature film. Pictured is John Cairney with the cyborg head. [FMC]

Monday, May 08, 2017

ROME EXPRESS (1932)

I guess I'd always assumed that the train movie, that delightful genre featuring a closed group of passengers, among whom are spies, adventurers, lovers and killers, more or less originated with Alfred Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES in 1938. But in 1932, at least three movies set primarily on trains were released: SHANGHAI EXPRESS with Marlene Dietrich, the B-movie BY WHOSE HAND?, and this one which may be, of the three, the closest to the genre template. Does it make sense to say the story is quite simple but the narrative is a bit too complex for its own good? The familiar set-up has a varied cast of characters sharing an express train from Paris to Rome. The passenger causing the most stir is movie star Asta Marvelle, traveling with her PR man Sam. She's tired of the publicity circuit and just wants to relax, but is startled to run into an old friend, Tony; it turns out that they were both involved in some shady doings years ago, and one of their criminal comrades, Poole, is on the train in possession of a stolen Van Gogh painting. Wealthy philanthropist Alastair McBane is on the train (with his toadying assistant Mills), and he'd love to get his hands on that painting. So would Zurta, an underworld buddy of Tony's. Others on board include Bishop, an obnoxious and oblivious man who keeps up a stream of inane chatter; a Mr. Grant and a Mrs. Maxted who are an adulterous couple on the run; and Monsieur Jolif, head of the French Police. Before the train reaches Rome, the painting will wind up in different hands, a murder will occur, and Jolif will sort it all out.

The basic storyline involving the painting is fairly clear, but the sheer number of characters, backgrounds, and motivations muddy the narrative waters a bit. But the film is still fun, primarily for the actors who bring some rather thinly-sketched characters to life. Most enjoyable are Cedric Hardwicke as the nasty rich man McBane, and Conrad Veidt as the potentially vicious Zurta. But almost as good are Esther Ralston as Asta, Hugh Williams as Tony, and Gordon Harker as Bishop, the man you love to be irritated by. The director, Walter Forde, uses some interesting stylistic touches, primarily lots of moving and tracking shots that one does not typically associate with early sound films, to sustain interest on the closed-in sets. He also juxtaposes shots to make thematic points; for example, a short montage goes back and forth between passengers eating food and the train workers shoveling coal to "feed" the train. There is also a fair amount of untranslated French dialogue. The lack of any substantial background music takes some getting used to. A must for train movie fans. (Pictured are Veidt and Williams.) [DVD]

Thursday, May 04, 2017

THUNDER IN THE EAST (1953)

This CASABLANCA-wannabe takes place in 1947, just after India gained its independence. The town of Ghandahar has become vulnerable to attack by the forces of the warlord Newah Kahn, and small-time arms dealer Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) has arrived with a planeload of arms that he hopes to sell to the Majahrajah of Ghandahar for use in defending his city. But Prime Minister Singh (Charles Boyer), a strict pacifist, refuses to even entertain the idea of arming even the palace guards. At the local hotel, Gibbs chats up a group of British guests who are used to being treated with deference and who are getting a little concerned about their security. He becomes particularly interested in Joan (Deborah Kerr), the blind but quite self-sufficient and strong-willed daughter of Rev. Willoughby (Cecil Kellaway). Gibbs also gets tangled up with Lizette, a young French totsy who wants to leave with Gibbs for Bombay whenever he's ready to go. A local boy named Moti befriends Gibbs and serves as a moral compass when, as Kahn's forces get closer to town, Gibbs agrees to let the British guests fly to safety with him—for a hefty fee. Both Moti and Joan turn away from Gibbs, even as he tries to talk Singh into using the machine guns to defend the palace where the British have congregated. Will anything cause Gibbs to stick his neck out for others without the promise of financial gain? Will the idealistic Singh relent on the use of weapons?

In addition to being a pale CASABLANCA copy, this film also derives from the well-used plotline of people (usually white Americans or British in a foreign country) who are massed together in a small space facing attack from an outside force (usually non-white natives or Communists). As such, this works fairly well. The sets for the hotel and the palace are both evocative and effective, and though the sets are large, a sense of claustrophobia does sink in near the end. But Alan Ladd is no Humphrey Bogart, or, to be fair, Steve Gibbs is no Rick Blaine. Ladd is not as expert as Bogart at presenting subtle flashes of evolving character, and Gibbs is not especially well fleshed-out in the screenplay. Kerr is bland as his love interest—and their romance seems pushed along by genre dictates, not naturally out of character interaction. Boyer, however, is quite good as the somewhat ambiguous Singh—for a time, I couldn't tell if he was truly a man of principle or a scoundrel looking out for himself—and in fact, it is Singh who becomes the pivotal figure in the story. Kellaway is good doing his usual riff on the slightly whimsical but ultimately down-to-earth father figure. Fine work is also done by Corinne Calvert as the French woman of loose morals, John Williams as the chief spokesman for the British guests, and young Marc Cavell as Moti. The first half is a little slow to get going, but the thrilling climax helps make up for that, and for the shortcomings of Ladd and Kerr. [Streaming]

Monday, May 01, 2017

PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

I've waited years to see this movie in its proper widescreen ratio. It's a 20th Century Fox film, so Fox Movie Channel shows it fairly frequently, but never in widescreen, only in the old TV pan-and-scan format. I began to think an original ratio print didn’t exist anymore, but eventually Turner Classic Movies aired it in widescreen (hurrah for TCM!). Was it worth the wait? No, but at least I didn't have to base my judgment on a distorted, shrunken version. In 1848, acclaimed actor Junius Booth (Raymond Massey) is traveling the country doing one-night stands of Shakespeare, but his drinking is getting the best of him. His son Edwin (Richard Burton) tries to get Dad out of the bars and onto the stage where, despite his inebriation, he always delivers. Edwin is content to simply be his father's helper, though his younger brother John (John Derek) has his own actorly aspirations. But ten years later, in San Francisco, Junius has deteriorated to the point where he cannot remember his lines and Edwin goes on in his place as Richard III in a mining camp performance. The miners are angry at first, but he promises to give them "the damnedest Richard they have ever seen," and he is a success. That night, Junius dies and Edwin vents, worrying that his father considered only John to be his true successor, and concerned that he has inherited Junius' "taint" of alcoholism. Of course, we know what happens to John, whose middle name is Wilkes: he turns from acting to political rabble-rousing and eventually assassinates President Lincoln. For his part, Edwin does take on the mantle of his father, but also battles a drinking problem, and, after the assassination, battles a suspicious public who wants to reject him because of his brother. Burton is very good, and Massey is even better, but the whole thing feels rather stagy and episodic, and even though we see scenes from Edwins's private life (relations with his sister and his wife), this never gets below the surface of the man. The many scenes of Shakespeare are pulled off nicely, with the added bonus of seeing the great stage actress Eva Le Gallienne playing Hamlet's mother. Burton fans will love this, both others may not be so enthralled. [TCM]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1965)

aka CATACOMBS

Ellen Garth (Georgina Cookson) is the wealthy owner of a textile company. She runs things with an iron fist, much to the consternation of her secretary Richard (Neil McCallum) who seems to be devoted to her but who is actually being blackmailed by her—he tried forging her name to some checks and when she discovered his duplicity, she kept the checks in a safe to ensure that he remains a compliant assistant. He gripes a lot to Raymond (Gary Merrill), her husband, who is generally content to live off her money but is not happy with the way she runs her home life; she's prone to lots of aches and pains, and, as a practitioner of the exotic religion Suplianism, she frequently puts herself into a coma-like trance to ease her pains. She's also a highly-sexed woman and places many demands on him in the bedroom. When her beautiful young niece Alice (Jane Merrow) arrives from art school in Paris, she starts what seems to be an innocent flirtation with Raymond, and he responds with increasing passion until soon the two are in the middle of an affair. Soon, Raymond and Richard are collaborating on a plan to get rid of Ellen—when she leaves for a scheduled trip to Rome with Richard, they plan on killing her off in what will look like a car accident (she has a well-known penchant for reckless driving) and they even hire a look-alike actress to help pull off the stunt. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

If you’ve seen the twisty French thriller DIABOLIQUE, you'll know more or less what's going on when it seems like the dead Ellen (or her ghost) keeps popping up to ruin everyone's plans. But even if this is a familiar plot device, you can still have some fun figuring out who's running the scam. This B-film second feature is bland looking and two of the leads are disappointing: Merrill looks a little too old and tired for the part, despite characters frequently telling us how attractive and strong he is (saying doesn't make it so). Merrow looks the part of the art school kitten, but her performance seems mostly phoned in. Luckily, Cookson makes a great brittle bitch, and McCallum does nicely as the vengeful assistant. The only other character of importance is Ellen's faithful housekeeper Christine (Rachel Thomas). The original British title, CATACOMBS, refers to a rather oblique clue to the mystery, a postcard of Roman catacombs that is sent from Rome—theoretically from Ellen though, as we know, actually from the actress. At times, the movie tries for a Hitchcock feel, but in its last 20 minutes, the pace, which should pick up, slows to a deadening creep which makes the climax, when it finally comes, a little anti-climactic. [TCM]

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]