Friday, July 21, 2017

PAINTING THE CLOUDS WITH SUNSHINE (1951)

In this variation on the Gold Diggers movies of the 30s (with a hint of Betty Grable's MOON OVER MIAMI), three showgirls (Virginia Mayo, Lucille Norman and Virginia Gibson) head for their next gig in Las Vegas and decide to get serious about landing rich husbands. Norman still holds a torch for Dennis Morgan whom she's left back in Hollywood because his gambling has become a problem. Handsome dancer Gene Nelson distracts Norman, but Gibson secretly pines for Nelson. But Nelson has a secret: he's from a rich banking family. When his uncle (Tom Conway) finds out that Nelson is cavorting with gold diggers, he heads to Vegas to break things up. Finding this out, the girls try to spruce themselves up to seem above reproach, but a case of mistaken identity has Mayo assume that Conway is actually an interior decorator come to help them look good, and Conway winds up falling for Mayo. Meanwhile, Morgan sneaks into Vegas hoping to patch things up with Norman. This colorful musical looks good, and there are some good dancing scenes, mostly involving Nelson, but the narrative has outworn its welcome over the years and not much has been done to shake it up. Norman and Gibson are serviceable, and poor Dennis Morgan, though top billed, really has a supporting role; it's Nelson and Mayo who star—and both shine. A subplot involving S.Z. Sakall as a hotel owner having financial troubles and Wallace Ford (unrecognizable under grizzled "old prospector" makeup) as a man who adds to those problems is silly and bogs down any energy the main plot builds up. A must for fans of Nelson and Mayo, a so-so way to pass the time for others. Pictured above are Conway, Nelson and Mayo. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE SKY'S THE LIMIT (1943)

In an opening sequence so perfunctory that I assumed it was a dream, we see Fred Astaire as a WWII fighter pilot with the Flying Tigers in China. On a 10-day promotional trip around the country before they head back to the front, Astaire, tired of not having any fun on his time off, slips off the train out West somewhere, buys some cowboy clothes, and heads off to Manhattan for some fun. Looking out of place at a high-class club, Astaire is attracted to Joan Leslie, a society page photographer (who sings in clubs on occasion) who is chomping at the bit to do something more important for the war effort. He gets her attention by doing what we would call "photobombing" her attempts to snap celebrities. When that doesn't work, he walks her home that night, takes a room in her apartment building, and sneaks into her kitchen to make her breakfast the next morning; in other words, he resorts to what we would stalking—though because he's charming and she's attractive, we (and she) are supposed to find the situation amusing. And eventually, she does. But because he keeps his war hero status secret, she thinks he's unemployed and starts trying to get him a job. And there's the little matter of her boss (Robert Benchley) who has flirted with her for years.

I had avoided this one for years because of its lukewarm reputation. I'm not sorry I saw it, but it is, in fact, one of the weaker Astaire movies. I can only really recommend it for one reason: a great Astaire solo number that I'd never even seen excerpted before. He does a drunken dance to "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" that ranks among his best. He takes the song at a surprisingly jaunty clip, and the climax, in which he jumps up on a bar and smashes glasses, bottles and mirrors, may have inspired Michael Jackson to take dancing destruction even further in the (suppressed) ending to his video for "Black and White." Otherwise, I found it difficult to find his stalking funny, and he and Leslie don’t have much chemistry. Joan Leslie has her fans, but I rarely find her more than adequate. The usually reliable Robert Benchley doesn't even get to provide much fun here. Robert Ryan plays a pilot buddy of Astaire's. There is one interesting element in added to the mix: name-dropping. Astaire rhymes "Shining hour" with "Mischa Auer," refers to a celeb photo caption as saying "Ginger Rogers and friend," and later mentions James Cagney and Rita Hayworth. [TCM]

Friday, July 14, 2017

SING, YOU SINNERS (1938)

The Beebe family is just your run-of-the-mill small town family with a mom and her three sons. But two of her boys are grown men—Dave (Fred MacMurray) has a steady job and a steady girlfriend whom he'd like to marry, but he wants to wait until brother Joe (Bing Crosby) makes something of himself before he moves out and leaves his mom and his 12-year-old brother Mike (Donald O’Connor) at the mercies of Joe's lackadaisical ways. The three boys work nights as a singing group at a restaurant, but Joe can't seem to hold down a reliable job. Dave makes Joe feel bad enough that he leaves home and heads out to California looking for a sure thing. Some money won at gambling gets him a swap shop. Thinking his business is a keeper, he sends for Ma and Mike to join him. When Dave and his girl (Ellen Drew) visit, they discover that his business is already a bust: he's sold it to buy a racehorse. So Dave pitches in to save Joe's butt one more time. Just when it looks like the horse, named Uncle Gus, might pay off, gamblers pay little Mike, who is serving as their jockey, to throw the race. Joe tells him not to, and in fact Uncle Gus wins. A scene of fisticuffs with the bad guys ensues, but since this is a comedy, there's a happy ending for the Beebe family.

A pleasant family movie, a little rowdier than your Andy Hardy type of film, this was interesting for me because of the brotherly chemistry between Crosby and MacMurray. In fact, Crosby feels a little off here, in sleepwalking mode on occasion, but also because his character is not particularly likeable, even at the end, and MacMurray and the young O'Connor carry much of the movie and provide most of the easy charm that would come from Bing. Elizabeth Patterson, a workhouse supporting actor who usually played spinsters or cranky aunts gets a bigger role here than usual as the mother and does a nice job. The brothers' musical numbers are fun, and one of Bing's big 30s hits, "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams," is performed a couple of times. "Small Fry" is an odd one, with the three guys dressed as a poor Southern family. From my 21st century perch, it was amusing to hear Crosby refer to "junk in the truck," meaning literally, he put a bunch of (rummage sale) junk in the trunk of his car. The ending feels rushed, but otherwise, a nice easy escapist movie. [TCM]

Monday, July 10, 2017

ZETA ONE (1969)

aka THE LOVE FACTOR

I warn you that this summary will not make much sense. This film wants to be three things: a James Bond spoof, a sci-fi movie, and soft-core porn, but it doesn't really work on any of those levels. It's very bad, almost amateurish at times, but for that reason, it's sort of fun to watch if you're in an MST3K mood. Secret agent James Word (Robin Hawdon), in a very mod zippered black shirt and thin mustache, arrives home after a mission to find a sexy blonde woman named Ann (Yutte Stensgaard) waiting for him. She claims to have been sent by his bosses to debrief him, though he's not sure she's being upfront. They play an excruciatingly long game of strip poker, eventually climb into bed (where he is, I assume, literally debriefed) and he tells her about his last mission: tracking down a gang of often-naked, often-large breasted women from the planet Angvia (get it?) who need to kidnap Earth women to keep the population growing. Another man (James Robertson Justice, who seems quite embarrassed to be present) and his thugs (including the fey Charles Hawtrey, a famous British comedian known for his appearances in the "Carry On" film series) are also following these women, as is some handsome guy in glasses who vanishes from the film after his two short scenes. After this situation is set up, things stop making narrative sense. Justice and his men torture a nude woman, we watch a couple of strippers at work, and 50s starlet Dawn Addams plays Zeta, the head of the Angvians who gives orders from a vaguely defined, colorful room (which reminded me of the setting from ZARDOZ where Sean Connery is tortured, or whatever happens to him). In the exciting finale, a horde of women wearing only string bikini bottoms and dark purple pasties run around a park zapping men unconscious with bizarre arm movements.  The movie ends (I think, but I'm not sure) with Ann turning out to be an Angvian, and she enlists James to be a stud to all the Angvian women. Lying in Arabian Nights pleasure in a satin bathrobe, surrounded by buxom women, he looks happy but plumb tuckered out in the final fade.

This film is based on a Barbarella-like SF serial that ran in something called Zeta Magazine; it's difficult to find much information about this, though cover images from the magazine do come up in Google searches. My theory about what happened: Tigon, a short-lived British studio mostly known for low budget horror movies, put this into production as a spy spoof with a sci-fi angle. But the spy comedy, which was a popular niche genre in the mid-60s, was probably dying on the vine by 1969, so they turned it into a sex farce, or at least threw in a lot of tits. At least once, we see full frontal female nudity as well, though of course, the male never gets naked—though he is shirtless on occasion. I also believe that the ridiculously long—almost 20 minutes—opening, in which Hawdon and Stensgaard do work up a little physical chemistry, came about because the producers realized that their film, after editing, came out to barely an hour, so they padded it out with the poker game, pushing the balance of the movie toward sex rather than spy or SF. Still, there are some pleasures to be had here, even if the viewer is not an admirer of the female form:  it's pop-art colorful; there are a few chuckles, particularly in the scene with a mean-spirited talking elevator; it has a wild theme song; I loved the set for the "self-revelation room," even though it consists solely of aluminum foil with psychedelic colors projected on it. I must admit the reason I watched this was that I had just seen WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH and had enjoyed seeing the handsome Robin Hawdon prancing around in a loincloth. He's not quite as appealing here, and soon he left the business to write plays and novels. Can I recommend this? Not really, because today, teens, frat boys and dirty old men have lots of arousing options other than a low-budget titty movie from the 60s. But I'm not sorry I watched it. [Netflix streaming]

Friday, July 07, 2017

WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970)

Hammer had a big hit with the caveman/dinosaur flick ONE MILLION YEARS BC, itself based on a 1940 movie, so they went back to the caves for this sequel of sorts, but the absence of Raquel Welch hurt the film's prospects, though Veronica Vetri, outfitted like Welch in a primitive animal-skin bikini, gives it her best. The sun-worshipping Rock Tribe is in the middle of sacrificing some buxom blondes when the moon makes its first appearance in the sky, throwing all into chaos. Sanna (Vetri), one of the blondes, manages to escape into the sea and is rescued by Tara (Robin Hawdon), a handsome fisherman from the Sand Tribe. He takes her back with him but the group—which has its own share of buxom, bikinied women—isn't crazy about her, believing she somehow caused the disruption in the sky caused by the moon, so she has to live more or less in exile, though Tara visits her frequently. She comes to be buddies with a baby dinosaur, though all the tribes live in danger of dinosaur attacks—not to mention a giant crab! In the end, a tidal wave sorts everyone out. As in ONE MILLION YEARS BC, there is no real dialogue here, just an occasional spurt of primitive caveman jargon (you'll get really tired of hearing "Akita!"), and the plot is barely present, despite being based on a story treatment by J.G. Ballard. But the stop-motion effects, supervised by Jim Danforth (who went on to have a long career in special effects), are on a par with the best of FX master Ray Harryhausen; these scenes are what make the movie watchable. Well, that and the physical charms of Vetri and Hawdon. The two have a fairly active sex scene, Vetri bares her breasts at least once, and I quite enjoyed the loinclothed Hawdon. There's also a jealous Sand Tribe woman who has it in for Sanna even more than the rest of them. A killer snake and a man-eating plant also cause problems for the skimply-dressed Sanna. The problem of the co-existence of dinosaurs and humans is, for me, a non-issue in these movies, despite the fuss that some critics make. This is a decent "turn off your mind, leave your libido running at half-speed, and enjoy" flick.  [Blu-Ray]

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

MIDNIGHT MANHUNT (1945)

Jelke (George Zucco) goes into a fleabag hotel, skulks around a bit, then enters Joe Wells' room, shooting him and stealing a portfolio of gems worth a million dollars. Jelke leaves but Joe, still clinging to life, drags himself out of the hotel to the alley behind the Last Gangster Wax Museum and dies there, leaving a trail of blood. A cop named Murphy finds the body—Joe was a notorious crook who hadn't been seen for five years and was presumed dead—and calls his precinct, but when he goes back to get Joe, the body is gone. Reporter Sue Gallagher (Ann Savage) has found the body and props it up in a poker game display in the museum, hoping to keep Joe from the cops until she has time to enter an exclusive story for her paper. Also on the scene: Mr. Miggs, the owner of the museum; Clutch, his malapropism-inclined assistant; and Pete Willis (William Gargan, pictured), a rival reporter who can't decide whether to try and outsmart Sue or help her with her story—and win her heart while he's at it.

This B-thriller has a very cheap look but the plot (a corpse that keeps disappearing and appearing) is a little ahead of its time, and the acting is decent all around. The all-in-one-night setting gives it a pleasing unity even if some of the antics involving the body (which we rarely see) are unmotivated. Gargan and Savage are a nice lead duo though the romance element is lacking. Zucco doesn't get much to do but I always like seeing him. Surprisingly, I liked eternal Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey as Clutch—he handled his wordplay well: when someone needs glasses, he says, "I'd advise you to see an optimist"; he wants the museum patrons to "get proper enumeration for their money"; most politically incorrectly, he says of a woman who has gone to bed, "She's retarded for the evening." A solid hour of entertainment for fans of second-feature flicks. [YouTube]

Thursday, June 29, 2017

THE RED DRAGON (1945)

In Mexico City, a man named Wyans is working on a top-secret atomic bomb project. After an attempt is made to steal his papers, Dorn, his secretary, asks Inspector Caverro to bring Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) in to help out, but before Chan arrives, Dorn is found at a luncheon party, sitting at his typewriter, shot to death, with just the typed-out phrase "THE$MOST" as a clue. Two oddities: there is Red Dragon brand Chinese ink on the desk; also, although one shot was heard, two bullets were fired, one into the wall, and no gun found, and no one seen leaving the room after the murder. Chan brings his son Tommy (and chauffeur Chattanooga Brown) to help him crack the case, and soon after Wyans' typewriter goes missing, Wyans calls Chan to say he knows how the murder was done, but he is killed in the same way—2 bullets, one shot, no gun—before he can talk. Among the suspects are Marguerite, who has a shady wartime past; the Countess Irena, a club singer; a smuggler, a gunrunner, and a Nazi propagandist. Chan digs up secrets and hidden relationships before another murder and a final gathering of suspects.

As Charlie Chan, Sidney Toler was the successor to Warner Oland after Oland died in 1938, and Toler made 22 Chan films, six more than Oland. However, Oland is better known in the part, perhaps because most of his Chan films were shot for major studio 20th Century Fox, whereas not long after Toler took over, the movies were done at low-budget studio Monogram.  But Toler is perfectly acceptable as more or less an Oland clone—though, of course, an actual Asian actor would have undoubtedly been more desirable. Here, Toler seems a little more lively than Oland was in his last few efforts—though Toler himself would pass away (from cancer) just two years later, and Roland Winters would get the part for last six movies in the canonical series. This is certainly not in the first rank of Chan movies, but neither is it at the bottom of the barrel. The Poverty Row production values are not distracting, though the writing is not strong—we are told at one point that no one is what they seem to be, but the characters are so surface that we don't really have a strong sense of how they're supposed to appear. I like Benson Fong as Tommy, and Willie Best does what he can with the black sidekick stereotype. Fortunio Bonanova makes an above-average policeman associate for Chan. There are better and worse Chans, but this is painless pleasure viewing. In the colorized publicity photo above are, from left, Fong, Toler and Bonanova. [DVD]

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]