Thursday, September 21, 2017

UP IN THE AIR (1940)

At the New York studios of the Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation, buddies Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland do menial physical work, but when Darro sees the lovely new receptionist (Marjorie Reynolds), he pretends to be a talent scout and sets up a fake audition for her—with Moreland playing piano. She's pissed when she finds out he's a phony but he keeps on flirting. Meanwhile, radio diva Lorna Gray seems a little spooked when she catches sight of singing cowboy Gordon Jones, who has arrived in town from Oklahoma hoping to make the big time. Gray is in the middle of tough negotiations with her bosses, and during a rehearsal session, someone turns out the lights and Gray winds up shot dead. Jones seems a little too eager to leave the studio, and we soon find out that he may have had an Oklahoma connection to Gray. As Darro and Moreland investigate, they discover that the innocent-seeming Reynolds also knew Jones, as did one of the network bosses. Later, Jones is cleared—because he's found dead in the network boss's office. Will there be more deaths before the killer is caught?

I'll give almost anything with Frankie Darro a try, and he and the African-American Moreland make a fun team; their personalities shine through a weak script. I dislike the artificial Reynolds except as Linda Mason in HOLIDAY INN but she's not really a liability here since Darro and Moreland are the chief draw. I like Gordon Jones (the original Green Hornet of the movies) but he doesn't have a lot to do. There's an uncomfortable bit with Darro in blackface auditioning a comedy routine with Moreland, but the punch line is cute: when the radio producer realizes it's Darro under the blackface, he starts to rub it off his face and Moreland says, "Don’' touch me—I don’t rub off!" There are a couple of so-so songs. Production-wise, this is par for the course for Monogram, but the two leading men (pictured) make this worth seeing. [Streaming]

Monday, September 18, 2017

ROMANOFF AND JULIET (1961)

An important United Nations vote on which the U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides ends in a tie until someone realizes that the tiny country of Condordia has not yet voted—most of the other delegates have never even heard of the country. Fleeing such a heavy responsibility, the president of Concordia (Peter Ustinov) says, "We have to get out of here before the Americans have time to offer us aid." Back home, the daughter of the American ambassador (Sandra Dee), disillusioned with her drab boyfriend Brian, falls for the handsome son of the Russian ambassador (John Gavin) who is about to be forced into an arranged marriage with a female solider. Thinking this could be a way to get the two countries together, Ustinov helps the forbidden romance along. After some diplomatic parrying among the three countries, Ustinov presides over the wedding of Dee and Gavin, with the two in disguise as legendary national figures at what everyone assumes is a symbolic marriage ceremony.

This sits a little uneasily between Cold War satire and romantic comedy, and although there are many amusing one-liners here, the political aspect dates the film enough that it bogs down severely in the middle. Ustinov, who also wrote the movie, wrote the play on which it is based, and directs, gives a fun twinkle-in-the-eye performance that sustains us through the rough patches. Supposedly, he was less than happy that Universal made him use contract players Dee and Gavin (pictured), but they are both delightful in fairly traditional rom-com roles. Though the rest of the actors are fine, the number of supporting characters clutters up the storyline. Among the amusing points and lines: Concordia's income is derived mostly from deliberately misprinting postage stamps—although by now the collectors are getting suspicious; when Ustinov first sees the brooding Gavin, he quips, "Who's this, Hamlet?"; a phone call in code between diplomats consists of line like "One man's meat is another man’s poison" and "Water, water everywhere and a drop to drink," intoned portentously. Quite funny in places, and perhaps best appreciated as a period piece. [TCM]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

ANNA KARENINA (1948)

In 19th century Moscow, the Oblonskys (Stefan and Dolly) are having marital troubles, and Stefan's sister Anna is arriving from St. Petersburg to intervene on his behalf. On the train, Anna strikes up a conversation with Countess Vronsky and, at the station, meets her dashing son, the Count. He is smitten with her, and she responds to him tentatively, but young Kitty is in love with the Count and is angry when Anna monopolizes Vronsky's time at a high society ball. Though Anna is married—to a cold martinet—and has a young son, Vronsky boldly follows her back to St. Petersburg and becomes her, shall we say, companion, in public and private. The town is abuzz with the scandal and soon even her clueless husband Karenin cannot ignore the gossip, though his solution is to keep ignoring it. When Vronsky is hurt in a horse race, Anna cannot hide her concern and Karenin decides to start divorce proceedings, planning on keeping her away from their son. Eventually, Anna discovers she is pregnant with Vronksy's child, but the infant is stillborn and Anna herself almost dies. In short order, Anna stays with Karenin, Vronsky tries to kill himself, and Anna and Vronsky take off for Venice for an idyllic season together. But when her husband refuses to give her an official divorce, she worries that Vronsky will grow tired of her as a mistress and, well, as you must know if have any cultural literacy at all, she throws herself in front of a train.

Since I reviewed the 1935 Greta Garbo version of the Tolstoy novel, I have seen the 2012 version with Keira Knightley and Jude Law (interesting style but cold and uninvolving) and twice struggled with the novel, getting a hundred pages in or so before giving up. So with my viewing of this film, I may finally have Anna out of my system. The Garbo version had a superior supporting cast, but I found the main characters embodied better here: Vivien Leigh's emotional struggles are more clearly presented, Ralph Richardson is the very incarnation of the chilly though not inhuman Karenin, and the dashing Kieron Moore (better known to me as the lighthouse keeper in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) makes a far more interesting Vronsky than either Jude Law or Fredric March. Sally Ann Howes is fine as Kitty, with the rest of the supporting cast adequate if not memorable. This is the version I'd be most likely to return to some day if I find myself in need of a Tolstoy fix. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

THE GIRL IN THE SHOW (1929)

A troupe of actors is traveling across the country, visiting small towns and giving performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Hattie (Bessie Love), who has the juicy melodramatic role of Little Eva, travels with her kid sister Oriole, and is sweet on Mal (Raymond Hackett), the handsome actor who plays the villainous Simon Legree. While in Kansas, a couple of do-gooder citizens, concerned that the child Oriole is not getting a proper education, investigate. One of the two, Mr. Wampler, gets interested in Hattie and becomes part of a scheme to smuggle Oriole out of town away from the other do-gooders. But in the next town, the troupe becomes stranded due to floods and the manager takes off with all their money. The actors encourage Hattie to encourage Wampler and, with the understanding that she will marry him, he agrees to get enough money for the troupe to live on until they can move on. Of course, this doesn't sit well with Mal, and no one is very happy when Wampler insists that Hattie give up her career. When they decide to put on a benefit performance for victims of the flood, they let little Oriole go on as Eva, which makes Hattie realize that she still wants to act, even as part of a third-rate company. Will a happy ending be in store for anyone?

This romantic comedy is an early sound film but that's not the problem with it; instead, it's the bland and predictable script and the generally unlikeable characters, including Hattie, who treats Mal badly, leads on Wampler, seems unreasonably disgusted when she finds out he's an undertaker, and deliberately gets Oriole stuffed with chocolates to ruin her performance as Eva. And yet we're supposed to like her! Bessie Love manages to make Hattie just sympathetic enough to hope that things will work out for her. Hackett (pictured with Love) is a handsome, upright fellow who was a child star in silents—he's quite personable here so it's a bit of a mystery why he quit acting just a couple years later. Eddie Nugent, another attractive young man, is fine as Mal's friend Dave. 10-year-old Nanci Price is quite good as Oriole, especially in her amusing climactic scene on stage as Eva. The film has dated quite a bit, though it does document a real phenomenon—that of traveling acting companies dedicated to just performing versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. [TCM]

Friday, September 08, 2017

HOT ROD GANG (1958)

Cool, handsome Johnny—college student and aspiring rock singer—is having a playful drag race with nerdy Dave, an engineer testing out a new hot rod model, but thuggish Mark, a city kid who resents Johnny's college student airs, comes along and challenges Johnny to a real race, during which Johnny almost hits an older man. Johnny makes it back to his gang's hangout, where they dance and drink sodas and work on hot rods, but the police arrive with the old man and his passengers, one of whom is young Lois, new in town. Lois recognizes Johnny but thinking him cute and likeable, doesn't ID him to the cops. We soon discover that Johnny is actually John Abernathy III, heir to a fortune, being held to a strict code of behavior by his lawyer and his two eccentric aunts, Anastasia and Abigail (who switch names every so often to keep folks on their toes). The family doesn't know about Johnny's hot rod, rock & roll life, and that evening, at a staid family gathering, Johnny officially meets Lois; her father is a new employee of the Abernathy family lawyer. She agrees to keep his secret if he'll introduce her to his friends. They sneak out of the house and head for the hangout where Johnny finds out that the landlord of their space is about to foreclose because of taxes. To get a lump sum to pay the taxes, Lois introduces Johnny to rock singer Gene Vincent who agrees to produce a record for him. But because Johnny has to hide his identity, he wears a huge fake beard and calls himself Jackson Dalrymple. His song, "Hit and Run Lover" is a hit, but just when it looks like Johnny's gang will be able to hold on to their hangout, Mark and his buddy, who are responsible for a string of auto part robberies, plant stolen goods in Johnny's car. Will the cops, not to mention Johnny's guardians, foil his plans?

As you may be able to tell from the summary above, there isn't much about hot rods or gangs in this movie, which for me is fine; it works fairly well as a light teen drama. There is a surprising amount of comedy here, so much that it can't really be called comic relief—it's more like the drama works as a "relief" to the humor. In addition to the mild comic antics of the nerd Dave, there’s Johnny's super-square put-on in front of his family, Johnny's bearded alter-ego (his silly beard might be well-regarded by today's hipsters ), Lois's I’m-in-on-the-gag demeanor during the family scenes, the snarky family maid, and of course, the two spinster sisters who actually get involved in the big fisticuffs scene at the end. Though it's not intended to be funny, two performances by Gene Vincent come off as fairly humorous because of his two sidemen; dressed in preppy sweaters and what look like sailor hats, they stand right next to him on stage, clapping and dancing, and only occasionally singing background. (It helped me that one of them could pass for Ryan Reynolds' younger brother--see picture at right.) Among the talent: John Ashley (who actually can sing) as Johnny, Jody Fair as Lois, Dub Taylor (a familiar face in Westerns and 60s & 70s TV shows) as the landlord, Claire Dubray as the wry maid. Of interest to me was the presence of Maureen Arthur (pictured with Ashley at top left) as a buxom blonde hot rod girl—10 years later, she memorably played sex bomb Hedy LaRue in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, one of my favorite movie musicals. Overall a good-natured B-film with no pretensions, though those hoping for lots of hot rod action may be disappointed. [TCM]

Thursday, September 07, 2017

THE HOUSE OF THE ARROW (1953)

In Dijon, France, the rich widow Madame Harlowe has died, and Boris, her brother-in-law, is expecting a nice settlement from her will. However, it turns out that she has left most of her estate to her adopted daughter Betty (Yvonne Furneaux). Boris goes to the police and claims that Mme. Harlowe was poisoned, naming Betty as the prime suspect—though a butler, a maid and a nurse also live in the house, as does Betty's mild-mannered English friend Ann (Josephine Griffin). Boris theorizes that Betty put poison in the old lady’s orange juice, based on the fact that he saw her make a suspicious visit to a shady neighborhood herbalist. The renowned inspector Hanaud (Oscar Homolka) works the case and, though he's not sure that Boris' theory is right, he does believe that Harlowe's death may have been the result of foul play. Ann, frightened for the vulnerable Betty, brings in Jim (Robert Urquhart), a lawyer from England, to be present during the investigation. Hanaud finds a book on African poison-laced arrows at the herbalist's shop, and the hunt for an arrow in the house is on. Ann suddenly remembers hearing strange whispering and seeing figures in the dark the night of the old lady's death. Betty seems sure that the killer is Boris, but what about the nurse, the person who would have had best access to Mme. Harlowe?

Based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason, a well-known British author of the early 20th century (The Four Feathers), this has the look of a film noir (inky black shadows) but the feel of an almost whimsical cozy mystery, largely due to the playful performance of Homolka as Hanaud. Apparently Hanaud, who appeared in a handful of Mason's novels, was an inspiration for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, and Homolka at times comes off a bit like Peter Ustinov did in his Poirot films—in my mind, that's a plus. There is a lack of tension for much of the running time, but the final confrontation scene plays out nicely. The rest of the actors are fine, if not particularly memorable; Urquhart has one of those supporting-actor faces that made him look familiar to me, though the only other movies of his I've seen is THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. There is an irritating accordion score but that's the only real negative I can come up with. Pictured are Furneaux, Urquhart and Griffin. [Amazon streaming]

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

THE ECHO MURDERS (1945)

This 70 minute film set during WWII is part mystery, part spy/action movie and is so crammed with incident that I'm not sure I got all the details right in my notes, but here's what I think happened:  Duncan is a wealthy man who owns a mine on the coast of Cornwall. Someone is setting off explosions at the mine in hopes of getting him to sell the land. He's also being blackmailed by his slimy secretary Rainsford who wants to marry Duncan's daughter Stella, who is interested in another worker, Warren. Duncan dismisses Warren, trying to blame the mine's problems on him, but Warren remains committed to Stella. Meanwhile, someone badly wants to get his hands on the mine plans which are kept in Duncan's safe. Feeling besieged, Duncan records a Dictaphone message asking detective Sexton Blake for help. He sends off the wax cylinder, but an intruder kills him that night. Did I mention the apparent suicide of a man named Fox who jumped or was pushed off a cliff? Or the two suspicious men who were confederates of Fox, one of whom, while casing the house to get to the safe, saw Duncan murdered? And when Blake arrives, one more puzzle piece is presented: an eccentric neighbor named Beales who heads up a local Health & Strength club, though he doesn't seem all that healthy himself. Beales' property is right above a big echoey cave on the beach where Fox's body was found, and where other odd things occur. Soon there will be another murder meant to look like a suicide, and even Blake himself will be tortured and reported dead before the culprits are caught in an explosion of guns and fisticuffs.

Sexton Blake is a pulp fiction detective and adventurer; his address on Baker Street might lead you to believe that he's a Sherlock Holmes knock-off, but based on the two Blake movies I've seen—the earlier one is reviewed here—Blake is far more of a man of action than Holmes. This film has action galore, of the B-movie variety, and even though the plot is convoluted, I could keep up with enough of it to stay interested. For most of the film's running time, you're not quite sure who's good and who's bad, or at least bad enough to commit murder and possibly be plotting with Nazis. There's even a few clever lines. Someone refers to the health society as "all orange juice and sandals," and a Cornwall cop tells Blake he's actually excited about all the fuss: "Murder is like a breath of fresh air." David Farrar, best known as the troublesome hunk in BLACK NARCISSUS, is quite good as Blake—he also played Blake in the earlier MEET SEXTON BLAKE which I hope to catch soon. The only other actor of note in the cast is Dennis Price (memorable in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS) as Warren, but he spends a good chunk of the movie languishing in jail. Otherwise, the acting is typical for a B-film of the era. Enjoyable. [Amazon streaming]

Friday, September 01, 2017

PIRATES OF THE PRAIRIE (1942)

Deputy Marshal Larry Durant (Tim Holt) is instructed to go undercover to investigate a land grab. The frontier towns of Spencerville and East Spencerville are separated by "a dry gulch and a feud"; in the absence of elected officials, a vigilante group has been established in Spencerville to keep the peace, but they have turned a blind eye to the grabbing of property in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad. Some folks could become rich selling their ill-gotten land to the government and Durant wonders if some of the vigilantes are behind the shady doings. Durant arrives in town posing as a gunsmith and gets the attention of Lew Harmon (Roy Barcroft), second-in-command of the vigilantes—and the mastermind behind the land swindle. Harmon, suspicious of Durant, tells him a gunsmith isn't wanted in town, and his men trash Durant's storefront, but Durant stays put, with the help of the simple-minded Ike (Cliff Edwards) who lost his farm to Harmon. Durant also starts a tentative friendship with Helen Spencer, daughter of John Spencer, the head of the vigilantes (who is not aware of the machinations of Harmon and his cohorts). It turns out that there is no feud between the two towns—Harmon has used this fiction as a way to flex his power as an illegitimate lawman. When the federal surveyors come to the area, they decide to build the railroad and its depot in East Spencerville, which would ruin Harmon's big plans. The stage is thus set for shoot-outs, bar brawls, night raids, and a cold-blooded murder before the good guys prevail.

This strikes me an absolutely average B-Western of the era. It's competently done but a little slack here and there, with some shots looking like they should have been retaken, and some of the editing feeling a bit ragged. The plot is nothing out of the ordinary but serviceable enough. Same for the acting: Holt is blandly heroic but a little cold, Barcroft is stereotypically villainous, and Edwards provides fairly unobtrusive comic relief. Nell O’Day, as Helen, the love interest, hasn't much to do, and only Charles King, as a particularly nasty henchman of Harmon's, stands out of the supporting cast. Edwards (pictured above to the left of Holt), known for his ukulele playing, gets a couple of songs. And it's all over in just under an hour. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

TORMENTED (1960)

Noted jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) is renting a beach bungalow on a resort island. He spends a lot of his free time in a deserted lighthouse while he prepares for a big concert performance, and for his marriage to his wholesome sweetheart Meg. Unfortunately, one night his old flame, sexy nightclub singer Vi Mason (Juli Redding), sneaks onto the island and threatens to expose their sordid past if he doesn't call the wedding off. They discuss the issue up in the lighthouse, and when the railing gives way, Vi falls. Grasping on with one hand, she begs Tom to save her; he reaches out but pulls back and she falls to her death. Soon, Tom feels haunted by Vi's ghost: seeing her body in the water, he carries it to be the beach but it turns to seaweed; his wedding ring goes missing; Vi's watch appears in his house; phantom footprints walk next to him on the beach; a record of Vi singing a song called "Tormented" plays even after Tom takes it off the phonograph; creepiest of all, her disembodied hand and head pop up from time to time. Soon everyone notices Tom's a little off; not just Meg but Meg's kid sister Sandy (Susan Gordon) and the good-natured—but nosy—blind landlady (Lillian Adams). Despite Tom's odd behavior, and despite her father's dislike for Tom, Meg insists on going through with the wedding, but the arrival on the island of an unsavory character (Joe Turkel) who brought Vi over from the mainland and wonders what's happened to her changes Tom's plans.

I discovered this low-budget thriller from Bert I. Gordon when it was mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000; their version is lots of fun, but I have come to appreciate the movie on its own merits. Part of the fun is figuring out if there really is a ghost or if a guilty Tom is just losing his mind—though he definitely wants Vi out of the way, he doesn't plan on killing her, and when she does die, he doesn’t directly cause it, he just pauses long enough in helping her that she loses her grip. His guilt here isn't strictly speaking based on him breaking a legal code but a moral code. Some critics say Carlson's performance is on the wooden side, but I think he does a nice job sliding back and forth between acting distracted because of guilt and feeling that his relationship with Meg and her sister will somehow redeem him. Is there a ghost? By the wedding scene near the end, you'll probably have decided, but until then, it's a toss-up. The other actors don't give Carlson much support: young Susan Gordon, only 11 at the time, is OK but tries a little too hard in her more melodramatic moments—possibly the fault of her dad, the director. Lugene Sanders is pretty bad as Meg, so much so that I wondered why Tom didn’t run off with Vi (the answer: Meg's family has money). Juli Redding is fine in her limited screen time as Vi, and Lillian Adams as the blind lady who is the first to figure out what might be going on, is serviceable. Joe Turkel, fine as the young tough who tries to blackmail Tom, went on to cult fame as the ghostly bartender in THE SHINING and as Dr. Tyrell in BLADE RUNNER. The wedding scene plays out nicely but feels truncated (did what we see really happen or was it all in Tom's mind?) so we can rush to the climax, back in the lighthouse. If you're in the mood for a Chiller Theater B-movie, this will do nicely. But also go ahead and catch the MST3K version as well. Pictured are Carlson and Redding in the flesh (at top right) and with Redding in ghostly form. [DVD]

Friday, August 25, 2017

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931)

Young Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) comes from a humble background—he grows up living in the Skid Row mission his parents run—but wants better things. We see him working as a bellhop in a Kansas City hotel, flirting with a rich girl but dating a lowly hotel maid. While out with his drunken friends, he is involved in a car crash that kills a pedestrian; he manages to run away fast enough to avoid any connection and leaves town. He eventually winds up in New York and gets a job at his uncle's shirt factory. He’s making money, but finds the work boring and beneath him. Invited to his uncle's house, he fails to make a good impression due to his sullen personlity. But at the factory, he becomes smitten with new worker Roberta Alden (Sylvia Sidney, pictured with Holmes) and though it's against the rules, the two see each other on the sly. He pressures her to have sex, and soon she is pregnant and pressing him for marriage. But he has since met the rich and lovely Sondra Finchley (Frances Dee) and, seeing a much better future with her, begins to fantasize about killing Roberta by faking a canoeing accident. One summer day, the two go out to a deserted part of a lake and he starts to act on his impulse. At the last minute, he stops himself, but the canoe tips anyway and she drowns. He rather heartlessly leaves the scene to go partying with Sondra and her moneyed crowd, but soon the police are able to draw a web of circumstantial evidence around him.

It's difficult to know how to approach this film critically. Based on a classic novel by Theodore Dreiser, directed by the stylish Josef von Sternberg, and filmed in the pre-Code era when filmmakers could deal with most of the movie’s "unsavory" themes (premarital sex, abortion, a crime of passion), there was definitely potential here for a classic movie. However, this just scratches the surface of the novel, coming off like a bland Reader's Digest condensation, and with very few of the visual flourishes one might expect from Sternberg. In the novel, Clyde's upbringing is crucial to an understanding of how his personality develops, but the movie skips over almost all of that. Holmes does manage to make the character passive, callow and unfeeling (his masculinity is questioned often enough that it made me wonder if Sternberg was suggesting some sexual orientation conflict) but we wind up with very little sympathy for him; Roberta is only lightly sketched as a character, and Sondra is barely present, so there is really no one in the story for us to identify with. Perhaps if I hadn't read the novel, my reaction would be different. The 50s film version, A PLACE IN THE SUN, is glossier with rounder characters, though still no match for the book, which admittedly gets hard to plow through in the last third. Interesting mainly as a pre-Code relic. [DVD]