Thursday, January 19, 2017

BELOW THE SEA (1933)

In 1917, a German submarine carrying gold bullion is sunk. Captain Von Boulting (Fredrick Vogeding) and a lieutenant make it to a small island and the captain draws a map showing where the sub is. As soon as they see a rescue ship, Von Boulting pushes his officer over a cliff so he won't have to share the booty if and when he ever manages to come back and get it. Twelve years later, the captain has been declared dead but has actually reinvented himself as a sailor named Schlemmer. In San Francisco, he has talked Lily, a brothel owner (Esther Howard) into backing his trip to get the gold by promising her half; he hires a deep-sea diver named Steve (Ralph Bellamy) to go along, but when Steve figures out what their goal is, he demands a third of the gold. Watching his share get smaller, Schlemmer leaves Lily behind and heads out with Steve and a small crew, but a huge storm winds up scotching their plans. In a lifeboat, Steve tears the treasure map in half so Schlemmer can't take another trip out without him. Three more years pass and this time, the two men are on an expedition sponsored by the wealthy Diana Templeton (Fay Wray), who proves to be a bit of a complication when she starts to fall for the gruff, perpetually smirking Steve; his demeanor slowly softens and the two seem on the verge of becoming an item. Another complication: Lily, who has stowed away, wanting her fair share of the gold. Soon, there is yet a third problem: a giant octopus!

This early action talkie will not be to all tastes, but given the time in which it was produced, it manages to be a fairly exciting film. It's odd to see Bellamy playing an unsavory character, but it's almost odder to have him reform his ways so relatively quickly. Aside from that, the rest of the story plays out well, with the two females, Wray and Howard, getting the acting honors. There's a cute scene in which Wray asks if she can get into Bellamy's diving suit—she wants to have her picture taken in it, not do any canoodling. The storm scenes are effective and even the octopus attack manages to work well. [TCM]

Monday, January 16, 2017

THE MAN WHO WOULDN'T TALK (1940)

When a Chilean mine company is taken over by American industrialist Frederick Keller, the workers are concerned about their future, and one American worker in particular (Lloyd Nolan) seems agitated when he recognizes Keller from his picture. In New York, Keller is preparing for a trip to Africa when he is found dead by gunshot in his bedroom. His disgraced former accountant is arrested for the crime, but in the middle of the trial, Nolan walks into the courtroom, gives the fake name of Joe Monday, and confesses to the murder, and even his court-appointed lawyer can't get him to give up his real name. Monday won't even try to put up a defense. In the meantime, Alice Stetson (Jean Rogers) reads about the case in the papers and has reason to believe that Monday is actually her brother Frank, reported as missing in action in WWI. She arranges a meeting with him, but he insists he isn't Frank, though he admits that Frank was in his company in the war, as was Keller, the murder victim. The key to all this might lie with the only other surviving member of the company, if he can be found in time. This melodrama is more interesting than compelling. It's very low-key and a little slow going in the middle, but Nolan gives a good performance against type, tamping down his usual high energy to play a stone-faced man of mystery, albeit a rather bland man. The end result is predictable even if not all of the narrative details are. No one else in the cast stands out, though you'll recognize Eric Blore and Onslow Stevens. Nowadays this would be an episode of TV crime show. Primarily recommended for fans of B-movies and/or of Nolan, who is pictured at left. [TCM]

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE SEA GULL (1968)

This seemingly faithful adaptation of an Anton Chekhov play is set at a country house by a lake, where the famous actress Arkadina (Simone Signoret) has gathered family and friends for a visit. Her son Konstantin (David Warner) is trying his hand at writing plays but his work is ignored by his mother and by her lover, the successful but midbrow writer Trigorin (James Mason). When Konstantin stages a scene from the play, a monologue performed by aspiring actress Nina (Vanessa Redgrave), his mother is clearly bored by it and he throws a fit. Konstantin is in love with Nina but she gravitates toward Trigorin. There are other entanglements as well: a schoolteacher is in love with Masha, the daughter of the estate bailiff, but she (Kathleen Widdoes) holds an unrequited torch for Konstantin. Arkadina's brother (Harry Andrews) is retired but chronically ill and feels that he has never really lived. The bailiff's wife is also frustrated with her lot in life and holds a torch for Dorn, the local doctor (Denholm Elliott), who actually seems to the most well-adjusted person in attendance. A few days later, Konstantin kills a seagull and thrusts the bloody bird at Nina, surely intending some symbolic commentary on life, art, love and death.

Two years later, the same people meet at the house again. Konstantin is now a successful writer, though his mother admits to not having read any of his stories. Nina had a fling with Trigorin which produced a child that didn't live long. She's eking out a living as an actress and, though not a part of the group, is in a nearby town with an acting troupe, and has been fitfully corresponding with Konstantin, signing her notes "The Seagull." Masha is unhappily married to the teacher but still pines for Konstantin. The gathering of everyone is placid enough on the surface but when Nina sneaks onto the property, a tragic ending is in store for at least one character.

Full disclosure: despite my academic background and personal interest in drama, I've never read a Chekhov play. I've also never seen one performed, though I have seen two different TV productions of The Cherry Orchard. But having seen Woody Allen's wonderful parody of Russina literature, LOVE AND DEATH, this work feels quite familiar to me. This film looks beautiful, with the first half shot almost entirely outdoors, lakeside (in Sweden) with greens and yellows predominating, and the second half taking place inside a lovely wood-paneled home, all browns and golds. The acting is mostly first-rate; Redgrave and Warner take center stage in the showiest roles, but most everyone else is fine, with Elliott and Widdoes shining in relatively small parts. Some critics don't care for Signoret, mostly because of her accent—with most of the Russians played by Britsh actors, why carp over a French accent—but I thought she was very good. For me, James Mason is the one weak link; I have no clue from his low-energy performance why the role of Trigorin is considered to be such a plum for an actor. He's not bad but bland, and he doesn;t ruin the strength of the ensemble. It's slow moving at times, but the acting is always interesting and gets you over the rough spots. Pictured above left are Signoret, Mason, Redgrave and Warner [TCM]

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

MEN CALL IT LOVE (1931)

Callie and her husband hold a fancy party to announce their divorce—apparently they're going to continue to live in the same house but will be free to follow their own yearnings. Helen would like to be so bold—married to the drab Joe (who seems to be something of a hypochondriac), she's been having an affair with playboy Tony, but that has gone a bit cold as Tony pursues Connie, wife of Jack. Connie remains faithful to her husband, but she hasn't yet heard the rumors that Jack has been having a fling with a chorus girl. And so the stage is set for further affairs, threats of affairs, and (being a Hollywood film) reconciliations. This kind of comedy of romantic misadventure was common in the pre-Code era, and this one is about par for the course. None of the characters is particularly likeable, though as actors, I liked Norman Foster as Jack and Leila Hyams as Connie, the central couple (pictured). I'm not always a fan of Menjou, but as the playboy Tony, he's not bad here—though in a way, he's the villain of the piece, he's nicely ambiguous in his intentions. Mary Duncan, who retired from the screen two years later, is Helen, and Hedda Hopper has a small role as Callie, who could be seen as the catalyst for all the disgruntlement among the couples. The moral messages here are mixed: ultimately, marriage wins out, but the concept of quiet adultery on the side is given a relatively fair hearing. I enjoyed a moment when Foster hums "Singin’ in the Rain." I also enjoyed an upset Connie telling Tony to drive faster as they head to a rendezvous: "I crave speed! You don't know how I crave speed!" [TCM]

Monday, January 09, 2017

THE WHITE COCKATOO (1935)

Jim (Ricardo Cortez, pictured) arrives at the Hotel Navarre on a windswept coast in France. The Lovscheims, the hotelkeepers, seem like they're trying to talk him out of staying as they warn him about the wind, the chilly weather, and a pet white cockatoo that keeps flying about, but he's expecting to meet a friend there in a few days so he stays. Another guest is Sue Talley (Jean Muir), also waiting for someone: her brother, whom she has not seen since childhood, so she can prove her claim to part of the family fortune by presenting her half of a bible page that was split between the children years ago. Also arriving at the hotel: the stand-offish Dr. Roberts and a lawyer named Lorn who represents Sue's brother. On Jim's first night there, Sue is menaced by a mysterious Russian who is found dead, apparently killed with a small dagger from Jim's room. Jim is detained by the police but released when it is found the dead man was actually killed by poison. The next victim is Marcel, the bellboy, who is killed just as he is about to reveal the name of the person he suspects of murder. Then Sue's brother Frank (John Eldredge) shows up, things get pilfered from rooms, a mysterious figure is seen through a window in a room that has been unoccupied for years, and the police won't let anyone leave the hotel. Soon it's clear than almost no one is quite what they seem, except maybe Jim who tries to help Sue (if she really is Sue) claim her inheritance and find the killer.

This really is a little gem of a mystery. It's a B-movie from Warner Brothers (which means it's two or three notches above other B-films) and the acting is all over the map, but it's worth watching for the tricky plot and the wonderful feel of the settings. The hotel lobby and rooms are nicely atmospheric, and the constant blowing of the winds gives a nice added touch of unease. Cortez, one of my favorite 30s actors, is very good, though few others here match him. Muir in particular is a bland heroine and I didn't really care about her predicament. Minna Gommbel as Mrs. Lovscheim and Ruth Donnelly as another American guest are both fine. The fairly light tone throughout is similar to that of an old-dark-house film, though this hotel is rarely dark. Fun and thrilling in the classic era style. [TCM]

Friday, January 06, 2017

THE CYCLOPS (1957)

Susan (Gloria Talbott) defies local officials and hires a small group of men to fly out over a Mexican desert to look for Bruce, her missing fiancĂ©. With her are Marty (Lon Chaney Jr.), a prospector who is sure there's uranium to be had in the mountains; Bruce’s buddy Russ (James Craig); and Lee (Tom Drake), a broken-down alcoholic pilot. As they near the site where Bruce was last known to have been, they run into dangerous downdrafts, and fisticuffs break out among the men. After they land, Marty discovers uranium and wants to fly back right away to make a claim, so the rest of the group worry that he may try to take the plane himself. Soon they come upon freakish giant animals including lizards, a spider, a rat, and a bird. Russ discovers that radioactivity has caused the mutations. Later, Susan becomes hysterical when she and Russ are trapped in a cave by a 30-foot tall man with a horribly disfigured face—and, as the title hints, only one eye. Yes, it's Bruce, also mutated due to radioactivity.

I think this must have made quite an impact on me when I first saw it at the tender age of 10, as the awful Cyclops face is burned into my consciousness. Or maybe it's because the cyclops face was featured on the cover of an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, just about my favorite magazine of all time. At any rate, my recent second viewing was not nearly so traumatic, though for a low-budget monster movie from Burt I. Gordon, this is fairly effective. As a kid, Lon Chaney Jr. would have been the only actor in the film I was familiar with. Now, it's an added bonus to see James Craig (the 40s B-equivalent of Clark Gable) and an older Tom Drake (the "Boy Next Door" from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) in the cast. Apparently, famous voice-over actor Paul Frees did uncredited work as the snarling grunts of the monster. There is a surprisingly graphic (for the time) shot near the end of the beast getting a huge stick of wood plunged in his eye. This is not a great film, but it's difficult to be entirely objective about a movie that has stayed with me for almost fifty years. [TCM]

Monday, January 02, 2017

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934)

Philip (Leslie Howard) is a young Englishman—sensitive, passive, afflicted with a club foot—living in Paris and studying to be a painter, but his mentor tells him he's wasting his time, saying his work doesn't show talent, "just industry and intelligence." He goes back to London for medical school where he is treated like a freak, with teachers making him show his foot to the other students. He makes some friends, including good-natured Harry (Reginald Denny), and most of them assume that Philip is quite sophisticated because he painted nudes in Paris. But he's actually rather shy, so it's a surprise when he takes out Mildred (Bette Davis), a snippy Cockney barmaid who treats him like dirt—when he's upset that she doesn't seem excited about the prospect of a second date, she snaps back, "If you don’t take me out, someone else will!" He becomes masochistically obsessed with her even though she treats him like dirt, and when he proposes to her, she informs him she's going to be marrying his friend Emil. Eventually Philip starts dating Norah, a romance writer who is good to him, but when Mildred shows up on his doorstep one night, pregnant and unmarried, he leaves Norah to devote himself to Mildred. Well, guess what? Mildred starts seeing his friend Harry, and when that goes south, she tries to get back in Philip's good graces again until she explodes in fury one night ("It made me sick when I had to let you kiss me! And after you kissed me, I always wiped my mouth!!") and burns up the bonds that Philip was relying on for school tuition. Finally, Philip has his fill of her, and she leaves, becoming a street tramp with a sick baby. You can foresee her sad ending from a mile away. But can Philip ever shake his obsession and find happiness with someone else?

This is the movie that made Bette Davis a name to contend with, and also the movie that was probably responsible for her first Oscar, won a year later for DANGEROUS, largely seen as a consolation prize for not even being nominated for BONDAGE. She gives a fierce performance, coming off as one of the harshest harridans in Hollywood history. Her role is important but rather surprisingly she doesn't get a lot of screen time. Still, it's her you'll remember about this film, otherwise an average pre-Code melodrama, based on a Somerset Maugham novel. Howard is fine in another somewhat mealy-mouthed role like Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind, but he practically vanishes when Davis shares the screen with him. There is solid support from Reginald Denny, Reginald Owen, and Alan Hale; unfortunately, Frances Dee and Kay Johnson, as Philip's other romantic interests, don’t fare well against Davis. In the last half-hour or so, it's difficult to tell how much time is passing, and too much plot is crammed into too little time. The movie is in the public domain so it's easy to find, but most of the prints are in poor shape, so stick with TCM showings for this one. [TCM]

Friday, December 30, 2016

GIVE A GIRL A BREAK (1953)

Broadway director Ted Sturgis' new revue "Give a Girl a Break" is in rehearsals until the star throws a tantrum about feeling ignored by Ted (Gower Champion). He apologizes but she quits anyway. To save the show, Ted, his assistant Bob (Bob Fosse), and his producer Leo (Kurt Kaszner) decide to go for a PR stunt; instead of hiring another big name, they'll do a well-publicized talent search for a star, literally giving an unknown girl a big break. The choice is quickly narrowed down to three, each one championed by one of the men: Suzy (Debbie Reynolds) is a young dancer with little experience but a cute face and a bubbly personality whom Bob has fallen head over heels for, despite her overbearing stage mother; Joanna, an older and more experienced dancer (Helen Wood) is the favorite of Leo, but he doesn't realize that she's married, and that her husband may expect her to give up her career to follow him to Minnesota for a teaching job; Ted's choice is his former dance partner—and, we assume, ex-lover—Madelyn (Marge Champion), who has a comeback on her mind, despite the lukewarm reception that her idea receives from her current boyfriend. We see three fun fantasy dance numbers, each dreamt up by one of the men, and ultimately the choice is not so much up to the men as to the life decisions made by each woman.

By cosmic coincidence, I saw this movie just days before Debbie Reynolds passed away, and I'd like to see it again. It's basically a B-movie musical; it looks colorful and it has a few very good numbers, but the script is thin, the songs are fairly blah, and the performances feel second-string. I can't help but think how much better Gene Kelly would have been as the director (apparently the movie was first intended as a vehicle for Kelly, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, but when they were unavailable, the budget got cut). Kaszner seems to be trying to channel Gregory Ratoff's producer performance in ALL ABOUT EVE but fails. Helen Wood and Marge Champion are unmemorable, which leaves the whole thing riding on the shoulders (or, more to the point, the dancing feet) of Reynolds and Fosse, and the two do manage to carry a good chunk of the movie. It feels like they have as much screen time, if not more, as the Champions, who are supposed to be the stars: they have great chemistry, they're both cute as hell, and they look like they're having a ball. The highlights of the movie are their two dance numbers, one in a Manhattan park and one, the dream number, which features hundreds of colorful balloons and Reynolds and Fosse dancing backwards—thanks to well-handled trick photography. There's an amusing running joke about Ted using the word "palaver" all the time. For me, Reynolds' peak was her first big movie (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) but in these lower-budget musicals she did for MGM, she's delightful, and is usually a good enough reason to watch. This may not be a top-rank MGM film but it's fun, and it's a chance to enjoy Reynolds and Fosse (pictured above) in their youth. We'll miss you, Debbie. [TCM]

Monday, December 26, 2016

FOREVER FEMALE (1953)

Broadway star Ginger Rogers has gotten good notices for her latest play—in which at age 40, she's playing 29—but the play itself is lambasted, so she and her producer (Paul Douglas), who is also her ex-husband, are on the lookout for a better play. Young playwright William Holden has such a play; its main characters are a 19-year old girl and her mother, and Rogers would seem suited for the role of the mother, especially with novice actress Pat Crowley hot after the role of the teenager, but Rogers wants to play the daughter, even if that means advancing the character's age to 29, like in her last play. Crowley falls for Holden even as he starts re-writing the play for Rogers. A dalliance develops between Rogers and Holden, despite Crowley's feelings—and despite the still-simmering feelings that Douglas has for Rogers. Eventually, the play in previews is a flop, but Crowley has engineered it so that she appears in the role of the daughter in a summer stock production of the play in Maine, and when Holden sees it, he realizes the error of his ways, both in terms of the play and his choice of love object.

The critic at Blu-Ray.com correctly points out the thematic similarities between this and ALL ABOUT EVE—an aging stage actress having both romantic and professional problems, a young actress ready for the spotlight—but there's no comparison in terms of quality or entertainment value. EVE is a movie for the ages; this one is a light throwaway romantic comedy that could use help in the writing and acting departments. Rogers (pictured with Holden) is adequate, but I've never thought much of her presence aside from in her films with Fred Astaire. Crowley, in her first role, is pretty bad, though part of the problem may be that her character is fairly unpleasant—she has a habit of drawing attention to herself in every situation, hoping she'll get noticed by someone who can help her career, and she changes her name at the drop of a hat for the same reason. An actress with a bit more substance and a bit more edge might have done well here, but Crowley feels at sea. Holden has little chemistry with either of his leading ladies and therefore wilts. Douglas is fine, as is James Gleason in the small role of an agent. This isn't a bad movie, but it feels like a waste of a good idea. [DVD]

Friday, December 23, 2016

CHARMING CHRISTMAS (2015)

Meredith Rossman (Julie Benz) is the daughter of the owners of Rossman’s, a successful department store in Portland, Oregon. In order to make sure her parents get the retirement they deserve, Meredith is in talks with a businessman named Daniel to start a nationwide franchise of stores, but Mom and Dad aren't yet on board 100%. When an old Mrs. Claus costume that Mom used to wear is found, the folks say they’ll consider the deal if Meredith will play Mrs. Claus in the store's Santa village—they hope doing this will help her relax a bit from the strains of running the store. Reluctantly, Meredith agrees, but she almost changes her mind when she discovers she has to work with Nick (David Sutcliffe), the new Santa. Young and handsome (and most assuredly not equipped with a Santa belly), the two start off on the wrong foot and continue that way for a while—she tries to remain all about business and he tries to get her to see the store employees as family, and perhaps to rethink the franchise opportunity. He also teases her with the possibility that he might actually be Santa Claus, which does not endear him to her. However, Meredith slowly thaws out and soon is helping some of her employees, including struggling single mom Jessie and administrative assistant Olivia who has career and romance troubles. But just as she and Nick seem to be striking sparks, Daniel raises the stakes by offering to buy Rossman's instead of just franchising. The catch: she’ll have to lay off a handful of workers.

This TV-movie is a nice variation on the Scrooge story, and to the movie's credit, Meredith is never presented as a truly mean person, just someone who needs a little help finding her way. The epiphany I had while watching this: these bland and formulaic Christmas movies are equally irritating and comforting: the rote ticking-off of all the plot points—introduction of the mildly troubled main character, introduction of the savior figure, slow growth of attraction between the two, the snag along the way, the inevitable redemptive happy ending—is irritating, especially when it's done in a fairly uninspiring way as it is here. But as in most genre pieces, it's comforting to watch the conventions fall into place. So on a scale of 1 to 5 for the Christmas TV-movie genre, this gets a 4, bumped up a bit because the blandly handsome leading man, David Sutcliffe, is particularly charming, and does a nice job keeping us off balance as to whether or not he's a magical guy or just the right man at the right time. Julie Benz is OK but sometimes seems like she thinks this is all beneath her, and to truly make these movies work, the actors have to be invested so that the viewer doesn't stop and think that the movie is beneath him or her. Paul Hopkins, who played Mouse in the Tales of the City sequels, is fine as Daniel, and in a bit of a break with tradition, he is not presented as a romantic foil. Pleasant, and despite the generally average production, one I'd consider re-watching. [Hallmark Channel]