Wednesday, June 28, 2017

BEST FOOT FORWARD (1943)

The students as Winsocki Military Academy are getting ready for senior prom and graduation exercises, but cadet Bud Hooper (Tommy Dix) is in a pickle: he sent movie star Lucille Ball (playing herself) a fan letter and asked her to be his date at the prom, never dreaming that she might accept. But she has, egged on by her agent (William Gaxton) who is worried that her career has hit a slump and that this could be good publicity. The problem is that Hooper also asked his longtime girlfriend Helen (Virginia Weidler), and she accepted as well. Hooper tells Helen that he's sick and not to come, but he feels bad about the subterfuge. Ball arrives on a train, expecting a big fanfare welcome, but Hooper and his pals have decided that the best solution to his predicament is to pass Ball off as Helen. (Did it not occur to them that Winsocki might benefit from a movie star appearance, and keep everything above board? To me, this is a major narrative stumbling block, but I was not asked to contribute to the screenplay.) Good-naturedly, Ball agrees to the plan, but who should show up later that day but Helen, come to minister to her sick boyfriend. From here, the complications pile up, leading to a mob scene the night of the prom during which Ball's adoring fans rip her clothes to shreds trying to get some souvenirs.

If you can get past the irritating plot mechanics (the decision not to exploit Ball's presence at the academy, the constant fluctuations of Helen's and Bud's moods, the threat of expulsion for Hooper and his friends), this has a number of enjoyable elements. Ball is great fun, gamely playing herself as a star in decline when in reality, she was just the opposite. Nancy Walker provides several bright spots (singing, dancing and clowning) as a plain-Jane blind date. The production numbers are bright and colorful, especially "The Three B’s" (not Beethoven, Bach & Brahms but barrelhouse, boogie-woogie & blues), and Harry James and his band provide fun versions of "Two O'Clock Jump" and "Flight of the Bumblebee." However, the acting in general is B-movie level. Tommy Dix (pictured with Ball), who was brought in with a handful of others from the original Broadway stage show, is not lead material—he has pretty much one look, glum resignation. Weidler was 16 and at an awkward stage between child actor (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) and grown-up starlet, and she doesn't quite know which direction to take here—this would, in fact, be her last film, though she managed to appear in over forty films beginning at the age of 4. Gaxton was a big stage star, but his charisma does not translate to film. Fine in smaller roles are June Allyson (in her first movie), Gloria DeHaven, Jack Jordan (another transfer from the stage who, despite pleasant looks and decent acting, never made another film), Chill Wills, Sara Haden and Henry O’Neill. Colorful and glossy and generally fun, but not in the top rank of Arthur Freed's MGM musicals. [TCM]

Monday, June 26, 2017

ROBIN HOOD AND THE PIRATES (1960)

This Italian adventure takes the mythical English outlaw hero and plunks him down in the middle of a Hercules movie, sort of. Though all the men are fully clothed, this has the feel of a peplum (sword and sandals) film. The story plays out as a sequel to the 1938 Errol Flynn classic, though it messes with the canonical lore a bit. The exposition that is delivered over the first half-hour tells us that when Robin took off to join the Crusades, his father became ruler of Sherwood, but Robin was kidnapped by a band of pirates and held for ransom. The news that gets back to Sherwood is that Robin is dead, and his father's wicked assistant Brooks imprisons the Merry Men, kills Dad, and takes over as lord of the land. When we join the story, the pirates run into a huge storm and they abandon ship, with the leader One-Eye (who wears an eye patch but who actually has two healthy eyes) giving Robin Hood his freedom. They all wash up on shore, very near Sherwood (as a road sign in Italian indicates), and Robin gets the pirates to help him in his mission to bring down Brooks in exchange for a share of Brooks' gold. Complications arise in the persons of Karen, a good girl whom Brooks intends to marry against her will but who actually falls for Robin, and Lizbeth, Brooks' daughter, a bad girl who hates Karen and wants Robin for herself.

Though I have to dock this movie for some ludicrously inept swordplay, there are a few points of interest. One major character, Sweet Pea, is a black woman, one of four Saracens held captive by the pirates; though she's just in the background for much of the film, she takes center stage at the end, triggering a revolt of the peasants just as Robin is about to be hanged. (I couldn't find the actress’s name but she bore a resemblance to Nell Carter of the 80s TV show Gimmie A Break.) She's fun—and her comic relief pursuit of One-Eye is successful in the end. The burly One-Eye makes for a decent sidekick, and his fighting entreaty, "Come at me!" feels quite modern, just needing a "Bro!" at the end. Lex Barker as Robin Hood is a disappointment, more or less sleepwalking his way through his role, and being surprisingly awkward in his swashbuckling. All the actors are dubbed, and whoever does the voice of Brooks seems to trying for Claude Rains. The final brouhaha, led by Sweet Pea is fun. While some of the earlier action scenes aren't very exciting, the rousing score tries to trick you into thinking they are. The film was shot widescreen (2.35:1), but the version I saw on Amazon Instant Video, while apparently widescreen, has been distorted to fit a 1.85:1 screen—I had to adjust my TV's viewing ratio to make the people look normal. [Streaming]

Friday, June 23, 2017

SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE (1934)

A gangster known as One-Eyed Mike is shot (through his good eye) and killed; his kid brother Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., pictured), ambitious but restless, tells his gal Sarah (Colleen Moore) that he's gonna hit the big time, but legally. Sarah, a secretary at an advertising agency, gets him an office-boy job with her boss Merritt but he clashes with some of the upper-class college grads working there who Joe sees as lazy and entitled. Joe also strikes up a flirtatious conversation with Merritt's mistress Agnes (Genevieve Tobin)—her perfume gets him all hot and bothered and their racy dialogue implies the beginning of a sadomasochistic relationship. Eventually Joe is allowed to write ad copy for a cosmetic product, is a hit, and gets a promotion. During the Depression, Joe's drive and conniving put him ahead of the game and he winds up screwing Merritt out his job and his mistress—Joe dumps Sarah and marries Agnes. Soon life near the top starts to spin out of control and Joe decides he wants to start all over. But suicide might be the more attractive choice. This is a fairly compelling melodrama with Fairbanks the highlight. He dares to make his character both appealingly energetic and quite unlikable. Tobin is very good, as is Frank Morgan as Merritt. Joe's sudden ethical change of heart near the end is unconvincing, but it doesn't ruin the film. [TCM]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959)

A group of archeologists is investigating the ruins of the lost city of Tikal and trying to understand why the city was abruptly abandoned by the Mayans back in the first century. Two men go out to explore a cave in the ruins but only one, Neito, returns, collapsing after fleeing an erupting volcano. His camera contains pictures of the two men at an underground lake which is the only clue that Dr. John Fielding has to what happened. Within the circle of scientists, there is personal trouble brewing: John and his wife Ellen are having marital problems related to his work, and Max, John's assistant, has the hots for Ellen and now has hope that she might respond to his flirting, though in theory Max has his hands full with Linda, a native woman who is part of their group. When our merry band gets to the lake, they find skeletons and gold at the bottom, but they also find a huge blob-like monster that sucks Max's arm into itself, resulting in all the flesh on his arm being torn off. Max is tended to, but he begins acting crazy and becomes a threat to the scientists. They soon discover that radiation from a comet that returns every thousand years or so feeds the blob monster and makes it grow, and coincidentally, that very comet is now on its way toward Earth.

I remember this title from the Chiller Theater era of the 1960s; I think the one time it aired, it was a second feature and didn’t start until after 1 a.m, and I (being 10 or 11 years old) fell asleep through most of it so its always retained a sense of mystery to me. Now I know that it's a fairly run-of-the-mill dubbed monster movie—made by Italians though set in Mexico—with a handful of gory moments and a romantic triangle story that would have bored me back then. It's notable mainly for being an early work of director Mario Bava, who is credited only as cinematographer though he actually finished the film when the director of record, Riccardo Freda, left. There are a few stylistic touches that signal Bava's presence—particularly the well-shot opening scene—but overall the low budget works against effective visuals. The monster is very disappointing looking in the beginning, though its victims are nicely grisly, and in the last 20 minutes, as Caltiki grows and reproduces, it is presented more effectively, even if the use of miniatures is obvious. Gerard Haerter (pictured) takes acting honors, such as they are, as Max who deteriorates mentally throughout the film. Sadly, a good print of this is hard to find in the U.S.; though there is a region 2 DVD that is in fine shape, I had to watch it on YouTube in a murky, non-letterboxed form, which may made my viewing experience less than optimum. I'd be willing to watch it again if a good region 1 DVD is ever issued. [YouTube]

Friday, June 16, 2017

ROSIE THE RIVETER (1944)

During World War II, Rosie the Riveter was a pop culture propaganda figure created to encourage and empower the homefront women who were 1) taking over the manual labor jobs that were left empty when the male workforce emptied out, and 2) working at defense plants producing aircraft and weapons for the war. This B-movie, rather surprisingly, handles the wartime propaganda very lightly and focuses more on a romantic comedy angle. The story, clearly inspired by the 1943 classic THE MORE THE MERRIER, is set in a defense factory town where, due to the huge influx of workers, housing is scarce. Rosie (Jane Frazee) and Charlie (Frank Albertson) arrive simultaneously at a boarding house run by Grandma Quill, both wanting the last available room. While they argue, two more workers, Vera (Vera Vague) and Kelly (Frank Jenks), show up, having already been promised rooms by Grandma's rambunctious grandson Buzz (Carl Switzer). The solution: the two men, who work the midnight shift, will share the room during the day, and the women, on the day shift, will sleep there at night. Of course, complications ensue: Rosie already has a fiancĂ©, Wayne, a boring stick-in-the-mud who is the personnel manager at the factory where they all work, but after getting stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel with Charlie, sparks fly; Vera finds herself getting sweet on Kelly; Grandma's adult daughter Stella keeps moving in and out depending on how mad she is at her husband, and teenage granddaughter Stella is constantly using the roomies' phone to make and break dates—when asked what would be so bad about spending one evening dateless, she replies, "That shouldn't happen to a dog!"

The outcomes are predictable; not only does the stick-in-the-mud get dumped, but Charlie, who's been desperate to be a Marine, finally gets his wish. This plotpoint is really the only time that a propaganda message is highlighted, and it leads to the song "Rosie the Riveter" being turned into a big patriotic production number at the end. This Republic Pictures film has production values a cut above the norm, and if the script is occasionally weak, the acting is fine. The Vera Vague story is interesting: the actress' real name was Barbara Jo Allen, and Vera Vague was a character she did in comedy routines on the radio. It proved so popular that she adopted the name herself in some of her movies where the shrill character was appropriate to the role. In this film, her character is called Vera and she is billed as Vera Vague, a little trick that she did quite a bit in the 40s. Switzer (Alfalfa in the Our Gang movies) and Louise Erickson are good as the kids, as is Maude Eburne as the grandmother. [Streaming]

Monday, June 12, 2017

DICK BARTON AT BAY (1950)

After watching the first Dick Barton movie, I was unsure about continuing in the series, but here I am, the second of three under my belt. This begins with an agent named Phillips being chased through alleys until he arrives at a phone booth where he stops to call government agent Dick Barton (Don Stannard), but is shot and tossed in the river before he can finish his message. The men responsible for the agent's death, led by Russian agent Volkoff, want to get their hands on Professor Mitchell and his death ray—it can destroy airplanes in the sky by exploding all combustible materials in the plane. Just after Mitchell demonstrates his ray for the British, Volkoff and his men steal the machine and kidnap Mitchell and his daughter Mary. They have plans to use the ray to bring down a flock of planes carrying a bunch of military experts, but they need Mitchell to help them work the ray. Dick and his faithful sidekick Snowey (George Ford) are on the chase, with a three-fingered thug and a ruthless Chinese assassin among their irritants, not to mention the beautiful but dangerous Anna (Tamara Desni), Volkoff's chief associate.

This is a little less of a "Boy’s adventure" story than the first film, though an admiring teenager plays a small role in the finale. Mostly it's a fast moving, if occasionally far-fetched, spy thriller, and the committed performance of Stannard as Dick Barton helps immensely; he may just have been copying the performers who played Barton on the radio, but he has a nice touch that combines a no-nonsense tone (he barks, "Buck up, Snowey!" to give his sidekick a needed boost of courage) with a light touch (able to joke a bit here and there). To the movie's credit, the strained comic relief of the first film is turned down a notch or two here. The climax, at an isolated lighthouse, is appropriately rousing and filled with fisticuffs (if awkwardly staged at times). Patrick Macnee, John Steed in the 60s TV show The Avengers, plays the ill-fated Phillips in the opening moments. Watchable, certainly, and good enough to push me on to find the third film. Pictured above are Snowey, Mary and Dick. [YouTube]

Friday, June 09, 2017

PIERRE OF THE PLAINS (1942)

A handsome French-Canadian trapper named Pierre (John Carroll) is riding through the woods, singing a merry tune about Saskatchewan, when he runs into his Indian pal Crying Loon who is trying unsuccessfully to hide his drunken state. Pierre heads into town to give a thrashing to Clerou (Sheldon Leonard), the trader who gave the Indian booze in exchange for his horse—it's illegal to sell the natives alcohol. The destructive fistfight is the last straw for the sheriff who orders Pierre to leave the district, but Pierre promises to shape up, claiming that he's getting married to Daisy (Ruth Hussey), a barmaid with whom he's had a longtime dalliance. Daisy is getting married, but, as her kid brother Val explains, the groom is Durkin (Bruce Cabot), a guide for the Mounties—we know all we need to know about Durkin's standing when we find out that Clerou, the shifty trader, is his best man. As the wedding is about to begin, an Indian woman and her children appear at the door, and she is revealed as Durkin's wife. Though Durkin claims he's being framed (by Pierre, he assumes), Daisy calls off the wedding and clearly Durkin has it in for Pierre. Later, Val gets in an altercation with Clerou who pulls a gun. They scuffle, the gun goes off, Clerou drops dead, and Val is arrested. A lawyer (Reginald Owen) is called in to prove Val's claim of self-defense, but he's constantly drunk, so Pierre and Daisy pull off a scheme to sneak Val out of jail. More complications occur, leading to a confrontation by the river between an unarmed Pierre and an armed and angry Durkin. Someone hiding behind a tree shoots and kills Durkin, but Pierre is arrested for his murder. Can our carefree trapper wriggle out of yet another predicament?

This MGM B-film is the kind of thing I typically enjoy: short running time, good production values, and a cast of familiar character actors including a very handsome lead actor. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but the 57-minute running time drags, despite lots of action and incident. Maybe there's too much plot crammed in, with not much done concerning backstory, and some loose ends left hanging. We have to take it as a given that Pierre and Daisy had any kind of relationship; Durkin and Daisy have no chemistry whatsoever; the brother Val vanishes from the story as soon as he is sprung from jail; I never did quite understand why the visiting Celia (Evelyn Ankers) and her father (Henry Travers) were there except to provide a minor plot point late in the game. The drunken Indian character—as written and as acted—is a disgrace, though he is important to the climax. So what did I like about this? Well, I'll watch almost anything with B-leading man John Carroll (pictured with Sheldon Leonard), and despite the forced accents, he gives a solid, energetic performance. Phil Brown, who plays Val, found fame late in his career playing Uncle Owen in the first Star Wars film. Hussey and Leonard are enjoyable. And I like the fact that, under the strict morals of the Production Code, Durkin's killer gets away scot-free. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

ERIK THE CONQUEROR (1961)

In 786, the Scottish King Lotar sends Sir Rutford to negotiate peace with some newly arrived Viking settlers, but instead Rutford and his men kill the Viking king and massacre the settlers.  The king's young son Eron is spirited away by Vikings, but his other son Erik is discovered by Lotar's wife Alice; after her husband is killed (supposedly by a Viking but actually by Rutford), she takes Erik in and raises him as her own—you see where this is going, right? Twenty years later, Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is chosen by Olaf, the aging king of the Vikings, to lead an invasion of England—Olaf assumes that Eron will be driven by a desire for revenge. Meanwhile in England, Erik (George Ardisson, pictured) has been made a duke, a move spearheaded by Queen Alice, and is chosen to lead troops against the Vikings. When the two meet at sea, Eron is victorious and kidnaps the British queen; Erik escapes and is washed up on a Viking shore and is assumed to be a Viking by the villagers. Eventually, Eron and Erik face each other during a swordfight; when Eron sees a Viking tattoo on Erik, he realizes that they are brothers, but Eron winds up shot in the chest by an arrow (from the conniving evil Sir Rutford). Will Erik be able to avenge not only his Viking parents but also his brother? (And did I mention the love plot?: Eron and Erik are in love with two Viking sisters—played by real-life twin sisters—who play a role in the climactic action)

Italian director Mario Bava is mostly known for his horror films, giallo thrillers and peplum (HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD). This is none of the above—despite scenes of men showing off their physiques, this is not really a sword-and-sandal movie; it's what might be called a mock- or faux-historical adventure. Bava and his screenwriters make mincemeat of history and that's fine. It might as well take place in Middle Earth or Westeros for all that the background setting matters. There are villages and castles and statuesque women in robes and swordfights. As in most Bava films, there is also beautiful use of visual texture and color, particularly greens and purples. Mitchell and Ardisson are fine in the leads, but acting is never the most important thing in a Bava film, especially given the wall-to-wall dubbing. The action scenes are well-handled and the plot is surprisingly elaborate. Recommended for fans of 60s action movies. Bava's later KNIVES OF THE AVENGER functions as a thematic sequel, featuring Vikings, Cameron Mitchell, and family intrigue. [DVD]

Monday, June 05, 2017

SONG OF SCHEHERAZADE (1947)

In 1865, a Russian naval ship is stuck in 116 degree heat in the becalmed waters of the Mediterranean, so the captain (Brian Donlevy) gives his men shore leave in Morocco. One of the men is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Jean-Pierre Aumont), an aspiring composer whose constant work on his opera irritates the captain. In town, Nicky and his buddy, the ship's doctor, see a piano in the villa of Madame de Talavera (Eve Arden) and Nicky can't resist entering the room and playing. That evening, after enduring teasing from the sailors, particularly the obnoxious upper-class Prince Mischetsky (Phillip Reed), he goes to a club to work on his music but begs the lovely dancing girl Cara (Yvonne De Carlo) to pretend that they are on a date. As they chat, she mentions that she seems to be always telling men stories from her life that she never finishes, which puts them in mind of the Arabian Nights story of Scheherazade. After Nicky leaves, we find out that Cara is the daughter of Madame de Talavera; the family has fallen on hard times and, unknown to her mother, Cara is dancing at night to make money. Cara's family winds up entwined with the sailors: as Nicky starts to fall for her, Mischetsky also gets interested; Madame finds herself the unwitting object of the affections of a very young sailor (Terry Kilburn) who wants desert the navy to elope with her; even the captain is not immune to the forceful personality of Madame. What will happen when the weather improves and the navy has to return to Russia?

In theory, this is another musician biopic in an era when that genre was popular, but it makes less of an effort than most to tell a convincing story. Other than the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov was, as a young man, in the Russian navy, little else about this has even the slightest feel of truth. The fluffy story that has been concocted must have sounded fun in outline, but it hasn't been especially well fleshed out. The pleasures here are in the bright Technicolor settings and some of the performances. Aumont is fine, if low-key, as the composer; Donlevly sleepwalks through a thankless role; but De Carlo is good and Arden brings the movie to life with her witty, snarky delivery. When her daughter pretends that she's been taking night classes, Arden replies, "In my day, girls made love at night." We hear "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Song of India" and music from Scheherazade, and De Carlo gets to do a couple of nice (though not dazzling) dance numbers—the bland choreography is often focused on by the film's critics. Not quite an A-budget film, this is still entertaining for the undemanding viewer, and more rewarding for fans of Eve Arden (pictured above with Aumont). [DVD]

Friday, June 02, 2017

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE (1940)

In 1917 France, British troops walk right into a German trap and espionage is suspected, thought to be the work of legendary German spy Strendler. Pilot Frank Bennett (Bruce Lester) is sent on a mission over enemy lines, is shot down, and is nursed back to health in a French hospital by Helene von Lorbeer (Margaret Lindsay). He falls for her, but she leaves abruptly; we find out she's actually a German spy, and her next mission is to be planted in home of Bennett's father, a government official. She poses as a refugee and is given the job of maid in the house. Her password, "Always forward, never backward," is delivered by Valder, the Mitchell butler (Boris Karloff); she is to ferret out military secrets and he will be her liaison with Strendler. (At least one other spy has infiltrated Bennett’s circle—a secretary—which made me wonder why they needed Helene.) As things seem to running smoothly for the Germans, Frank returns home and recognizes Helene as his lost love; she tells him she's actually a British double agent. Guess who else seems to be a double agent? Valder! But then who or what is Strendler? The rest of the plot plays with these varying seemingly shifting loyalties until a fairly predictable ending.

This is a remake of THREE FACES EAST, itself a remake of a silent film and based on a play. Warner Bros. did this re-purposing fairly frequently in the 30s and 40s to provide material for their B-movie unit. This follows the 1930 version very closely, so if you know that film, there will be no plot surprises. Karloff proves a solid replacement for Erich von Stroheim, and Lindsay is better than Constance Bennett, and the whole thing is nicely done and briskly paced, as most products of the Warner B-unit were. The World War I setting was kept, though the ending features a rousing propaganda speech fitting for WWII. It is rather stagy, mostly being set in rooms in houses, though there is a German zeppelin raid over London at the climax. This is worth your time (71 minutes) if only to see Karloff (pictured) do a nice job in a non-horror role. [DVD]