Wednesday, March 21, 2018


The first five minutes of this film is fun: a man walks into a room where a cluster of people are examining the body of someone who has been stabbed to death. When the visitor, Jerry, wonders out loud why no one has called the police, they begin chuckling as the dead man gets up off the floor—it's all been a harmless parlor game. Sadly, the movie goes downhill quickly from here. This early sound film from Poverty Row studio Chesterfield is deadly dull. It's only an hour but it took all the patience I could dredge up to stick with it to the end. As you might predict, these folks who are apparently spending a weekend together at a mansion in the country eventually do have to deal with a real murder. Involved, along with Jerry Murdock, are two married couples, the Stileses and the Quincys; Harry Forrest, a mystery author; and Diana, Mrs. Stiles' sister. Some intrigue is revealed: Harry has a rendezvous on a balcony with Diana; Jerry has loaned Mrs. Stiles money to open a tea shop; someone has doped up the Quincys so they'll sleep soundly. A chauffeur sees someone sneaking around after midnight, and the next morning, Jerry is discovered dead (for real). Inspector Brown and his comic relief sergeant arrive to interrogate everyone, including Rita, a possible golddigger, who shows up claiming to be Jerry's widow. Soon, Mrs. Quincy is stabbed to death behind the counter at her tea shop. The cops ask the novelist for help in sorting things out.

There’s nothing really wrong with the plot or even the writing—it plays out like an average B-mystery, slightly less convoluted than most. But in every other aspect, this is a tedious affair. The director, Richard Thorpe, went on to a long if undistinguished career, but shows very little flair here, though in addition to the atmospheric opening, there's a nicely shot overhead scene of pandemonium breaking out in the tea shop when Mrs. Quincy is found dead. The actors are a rather sorry lot. I’d never heard of any of them, though most had decent careers in supporting roles or B-movies. They are generally competent, though no one stands out as interesting. Jameson Thomas, who plays the novelist, is one of the most colorless B-leads I've ever seen.  The movie isn’t exactly actively bad, but it’s just so damned boring. Pictured is Edmund Burns who plays Quincy. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, March 19, 2018


Danny is a popular songwriter whose publisher Bernie is pushing his latest hoped-for hit "A Couple of Birds"; Emma, Bernie's secretary, harbors a secret crush on Danny; Fanny is the vaudeville vocalist who sings Danny's songs and who flirts comically with Andy, her piano player. Into this cozy little group comes Pat, a blonde socialite who flirts heavily with Danny on a dance floor, even though she is escorted by Rod, an older man with whom she seems to have an intimate relationship. Danny falls for her and soon they get engaged, but before the wedding, Danny overhears her tell Rod that she's just "experimenting" with Danny, and she refers to Rod as "Danny's understudy." At the wedding rehearsal, Danny makes a scene and leaves on a drinking binge. The next morning, Emma explains to Danny that the two of them got married while he was drunk; his reaction is ambiguous. Did they really, or is Emma just trying to save Danny from the clutches of Pat? Does he really want to be saved?

The title of this pre-Code film is misleading: I assumed it would be a melodrama about illegitimate children, or perhaps about hedonistic flappers and the men who ruin them. But, no, it's a show-biz musical comedy centering on a traditional love triangle. The pre-Code aspects are thin, mostly present in the casually promiscuous behavior of Pat. At 70 minutes, it would seem like it might be a briskly-paced affair, but almost half the running time is taken up with musical numbers performed in a theater or club (no Astaire and Rogers bursting out in song here). Because the songs are not memorable, the movie feels longer than it should. A couple of the production numbers are interesting: one song called "Dust" features a large bunch of dancing girls decked out in devil outfits (pictured above left), and "A Couple of Birds" has dancing boys in tuxes and blackface. The acting rarely rises above serviceable: Lawrence Gray (bland) is Danny, Wynne Gibson (sweet) is Emma, Helen Johnson (cool) is Pat. May Boley takes a stab at a bigger-than-life turn, playing Fanny like Fanny Brice—she doesn't quite succeed, coming off more like a second-string performer than the big star she's supposed to be, but she's OK. Two actors are saddled with Jewish stereotypes: Lee Kohlmer as Bernie is a bit more subtle than comic actor Benny Rubin as Andy. Jack Benny and Cliff Edwards have cameos as themselves. Amusing line, delivered by Fanny as someone who has had four husbands and is working on a fifth: "A woman is like a car—she never gets to be good until after the first 5000 miles." For fans of early musicals. Pictured above from left are Kohlmer, Gray and Gibson. [TCM]

Friday, March 16, 2018


Vince Grayson tells his brother-in-law, police detective Cliff Herlihy, about a nightmare he had that seemed very real: he was in an octagonal mirrored room with a man and a woman who were breaking into a safe. He and the man got into a fistfight and he stabbed the man to death. The woman ran off and Vince placed the man's body behind a mirrored door, locked it with a key, and left. What makes the dream particularly disturbing is when Vince wakes up, he has choke marks on his neck and he finds a key in his jacket. Cliff thinks he's just had a very bad dream and, to get his mind off of it, Cliff and his wife take Vince and his girlfriend out for a picnic. When a thunderstorm hits, they take refuge in an abandoned house and Cliff is horrified when he finds a room in the house that looks just like the room in his dream. A local policeman tells them the story of a murder in the house and Vince, certain that he's a killer, attempts suicide. Cliff saves him and slowly spins out a theory of his own involving hypnosis. Can Cliff lay a trap for the real killer before Vince goes off the deep end?

This is a solid film noir based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (best-known for writing the story on which REAR WINDOW was based, though most of his works are worth reading). The noir device of the average guy suddenly thrown into a maelstrom of darkness and guilt is the foundation for the whole plot, and DeForest Kelley (pictured), whom you undoubtedly know as Bones on Star Trek, does a nice job as the nervous young man. Paul Kelly is equally good as the cop, and in a bit of a departure for noir, there really is no femme fatale or even a romantic relationship—the ladies stay in the background except for a strange scene which establishes that Clif'’s wife has an over-the-top neurotic reaction to thunderstorms, giving them a reason to look for refuge and to find the murder house. Robert Emmett Keane, a familiar face from nearly 200 character roles, many uncredited, is the villain. The dark visual style is typical noir. If you can get past a few far-fetched plot points, you’ll enjoy this one. [Streaming]

Thursday, March 15, 2018

WILSON (1944)

This biopic of 28th president Woodrow Wilson begins in 1909 when we see Wilson (Alexander Knox), president of Princeton, at a football game which his team loses to Yale. That night, he is visited by Senator Jones who asks him to run for governor of New Jersey, as a progressive against "special interests." He is unsure, but his wife Ellen encourages him, so he runs. At the state convention, he is asked about the corrupt political machine that put him up to the run (notably, Senator Jones) and Wilson replies by insisting he will break up the old boys' network. Jones says publically he will not run for office again, and Wilson wins the election, but a year later, when Jones negates himself and says he'll run, Wilson threatens to make trouble so he winds up getting kicked upstairs, in a fashion, and is encouraged to run for President. A lengthy sequence covers the tumultuous 1912 Democratic convention at which Wilson finally wins the nomination on the 46th ballot, and later wins the national election. Not long after moving into the White House, his wife takes ill and dies. As WWI begins, Wilson is still in mourning but the sinking of Lusitania forces him back to reality; Republican congressman Henry Cabot Lodge (Cedric Hardwickwe), who wants to push the U.S. into the war, becomes Wilson's nemesis when Wilson announces he will not retaliate militarily. Wilson begins dating Edith Galt (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which causes much gossip until he marries her. He goes on to win a second term with anti-war promises, but eventually he is forced by events to declare war against Germany.  The eventual armistice leads to Wilson's attempt to establish a peacekeeping League of Nations, and he undertakes an arduous train tour across the country to whip up support, but along the way, he suffers a stroke and Edith secretly takes over whatever duties she can. Lodge leads a number of congressmen to fight against the League, and the next president, Republican Warren Harding, kills any chance of America's participation. But Wilson recovers enough to leave office proudly and on his own steam.

As with many Hollywood biographical films, this is episodic, the only way really to cover twelve years in anyone's life. And, as in many biopics, he is made out to be the next thing to a saint, with no mention made of his racist and segregationist beliefs. At 2 ½ hours, this has often derided as slow and boring, and the film lost a fair amount of money on its initial release. But viewed now, it comes off pretty well: the pace is fine and Knox's performance, given Wilson’s generally mild persona, is impressive—though things never get exciting, I never lost interest throughout the running time. It's also great fun to see so many familiar supporting players, including Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price (practically unrecognizable as fellow New Jersey politician William McAdoo), Sidney Blackmer, Charles Coburn, and Marcel Dalio. It's in color which also helps it play well today. This may not make classic movie fans out of young people today, but if you're already a biopic buff, this is a must-see. Pictured are Knox and Ruth Nelson as Wilson's first wife. [TCM]

Monday, March 12, 2018


On a hot summer day, Garda Sloane (Ann Sothren) turns up the heat in the office of her husband Joel (Franchot Tone), hoping he'll take the hint and split the city for a resort vacation. As it happens, his old college friend Mike (Lee Bowman) is running a beauty pageant at Seaside City; Joel loans Mike a few thousand dollars to invest in it and is promised a judging slot, so Garda gets her wish and the two take off for the shore. But there's trouble in store. First, Garda gets jealous when Joel takes his judging duties too seriously. Then Joel finds out that Bartell, the promoter, may be a swindler who is collecting money to pay off a gangster named Connors. Bartell winds up dead and the cops think Mike did it, so Joel and Garda, with some help from a flirtatious reporter named Bentley (Allyn Joslyn), try to clear his name. Suspects include Connors; Lily (Ruth Hussey), Bartell’s associate; and a pageant contestant named Jerry.

This is the third entry in a B-mystery series (seemingly modeled on the Thin Man movies) which featured the Sloanes, rare book dealers, though you'd be hard pressed to know that from this movie as the book element is pretty much absent here. In each film, a different pair of actors played the leads; Tone and Sothern (pictured) are no better or worse than Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in the previous entry, FAST AND LOOSE (I have not yet seen the first one, FAST COMPANY with Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice). The mystery elements are weaker than the comic elements, and that's OK as the cast handles the humor well. There is a running gag involving lions that has a nice payoff at the end. The functional direction is by Busby Berkeley, a long way from his classic 1930s musicals. The 70 minutes go by quickly; generally, it's not terribly memorable but not hard to watch. [TCM]

Thursday, March 08, 2018


In this bland and predictable comedy, Clifton Webb plays a prominent industrial designer whose genius daughter (Anne Francis) has graduated from college. He hopes she will go to Sweden to work with his mentor, but that night at a party, Francis' psychology professor (William Lundigan) confesses his love for her and the two impulsively decide to elope. When Webb discovers Francis' bed empty in the morning, he is furious and he and his wife head to over to Lundigan's parents' house to find that Lundigan's father (Charles Bickford) is almost as mad as Webb. Both sets of parents wind up in one car chasing after the couple, but they end up liking each other and decide they approve of the marriage. However, at the same time, Francis and Lundigan begin questioning their relationship, and Webb and Bickford find themselves trying to get the two back together. Much as I love Webb in LAURA and THE RAZOR'S EDGE, I'm not a fan of his 20th Century Fox comedies of the 50s. His brittle, distant, ironic persona in his more serious movies does not travel well into the sit-com father role he took in his later films. Obviously he must have been popular as a beleaguered dad, but his performances haven't aged well. Add to that ill-suited fit a screenplay with virtually no surprises and you have a rather colorless film. Still, this is not unwatchable—Webb has his moments, and Francis and Lundigan have some chemistry. Bickford is unmemorable, as are the actresses playing the wives. Reginald Gardiner is welcome in his small role as an old friend of Webb's. Difficult to recommend wholeheartedly, but also easy to watch if you want a TV sit-com stretched out to almost 90 minutes. Pictured are Francis and Lundigan. [FMC]

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


In a village tavern during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the innkeeper's wife has taken ill and the doctor has left saying he can do nothing more for her, but the drunken monk Rasputin (Christopher Lee) goes to her bed and makes a show of curing her with his mystical healing powers. During a celebratory party he downs three bottles of wine and makes out with the innkeeper's daughter in the barn, and when her jealous boyfriend attacks, Rasputin chops the boy's hand off. When the bishop hears of this behavior, the monk is called upon to defend himself; he says he sins big in order to have a lot to offer up to God. He is excommunicated and leaves town for St. Petersburg and while at a tavern meets Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a handmaid at the royal court. He degrades her, sleeps with her, and hypnotizes her into causing the young prince to have an accident so he can swoop in and heal him, thereby insinuating himself into the royal family. Rasputin's influence grows, but after Rasputin drives the Tsarina to kill herself, a group of men in the palace, including Sonia's brother Peter, plot to get rid of him. If you know nothing else about Rasputin, you know he was a hard man to kill, despite having consumed poisoned chocolates and wine, so the death scene climax goes on for a while.

It's a given that this Hammer movie will not be historically accurate, so there should be no griping about that. This is a case of historical context used for a horror film. The problem is this is not a successful genre mash-up. Christopher Lee tries hard, but he seems stymied in his attempt to give a full-blooded performance—he emphasizes the grungy, decadent side of Rasputin, but not his hypnotically charismatic side, so his rise among the royals seem artificial. The sets, costumes, and color schemes are right out of the traditional Hammer horror films, especially the Dracula series, so for me, this built up expectations of pulpy enjoyment that don't come to fruition—the mayhem near the end is nicely done, but getting there is a bit of a chore. I'd recommend this mostly to Hammer and/or Lee compleists. [TCM]

Friday, March 02, 2018


Nifty Sullivan (Ray Bolger) is a songwriter and leader of the swing band Four Jacks and a Queen, the latter being lead singer Opal (June Havoc). Nifty steals some of his tunes from the classical world; as one of the band members says, "You gotta hand it to a guy who can whip the Barber of Seville into 'Once Over Lightly with You, Baby!'" At a symphony concert, he winds up sitting with Nina (Anne Shirley), a poor homeless girl singer from the Balkan country Aregal, and when she gets him out of trouble with Noodle, a gangster who is dating Opal, he invites her to stay in the apartment he shares with the band. Noodle makes Opal quit singing to be his full-time moll, and Nina moves into high gear, getting the boys a gig at the Little Aregal CafĂ© and joining the group, claiming to be a personal favorite singer of King Stephan of Aregal. The king is rumored to be visiting New York City in secret, and taxi driver Steve Sarno (Desi Arnaz), who bears a resemblance to him, poses as the king. So, what develops is: Steve begins an affair with Opal even as Nifty gets jealous of Nina's attentions to Steve (as the king) and Noodle decides he wants to use the royal fuss to break Opal into high society—he calls her a "vulture for culture." With all these shenanigans in motion, who should show up but the real King Stephan.

As I watched this B-musical unfold, I had this nagging thought that I’d seen it before. It turns out it's an uncredited remake of the early sound musical STREET GIRL. The story is packed with incident but it's easy to follow. Though the 1929 film is primitive in style, I think that version has the edge; this one, though decently acted, is sloppily directed. I like Bolger but he's not the most charismatic lead man around; Shirley and Havoc are fine; the young Arnaz actually steals the show with his slightly shady character. One of Bolger's show-off, long-take dance numbers to a song called "I'm in Good Shape for the Shape I'm In" is hurt by some shaky camerawork. "Boogie Woogie Conga" is the only memorable tune. There is fine support from Eddie For Jr., Jack Briggs and William Blees as the other three Jacks. Pictured are Shirley, Arnaz and Bolger. [TCM]

Monday, February 26, 2018


David Linton, book reviewer and frustrated author, and his wife Jean are living in distressed circumstances as David tries to get work done on a novel—though Jean thinks that his drinking is getting in the way of his writing. They have just moved into a small boarding house and plan on ducking out after a few weeks without paying when Jean gets the news that an aunt has died and left her a house and a nice chunk of money. When David and Jean arrive at the house, called Four Winds, strange things begin to happen: a door slams itself in David's face, an armchair seems to move on its own, and Jean hears unexplained noises. According to the housekeeper Mrs. O'Brien, the house is haunted by a poltergeist named Patrick who seems more pranky than dangerous. The two settle in; Jean loves the house, of which she has fond memories from her youth, but David is unhappy and his drinking gets worse. When someone makes them a good offer on the house, Jean declines which frustrates David all the more. As he slowly makes progress on his novel, David hires Valerie, the village blonde bombshell, as a typist; of course, the promise of an affair hangs in the air, though what Valerie really wants is to get married, and she soon plants the idea that David should kill his wife, get a bundle from selling the house, and marry her. He begins making plans, but we all know about the best-laid plans of mice and men, especially when a poltergeist is hanging around.

I often compare short B-films in the fantasy or horror genre to long Twilight Zone episodes; this one feels more like a long episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For most of its running time, this is a mild but not uninteresting domestic thriller of an unhappy husband figuring out how to free himself of his wife but keep her money. But the poltergeist adds a supernatural element which cannot be dismissed—we see furniture move by itself, and the surprisingly spectacular finale is undeniably triggered by the ghost. I'd never heard of the B-level actors in the cast, but they are all very good: Tony Wright as the alcoholic husband who can be both charming and loutish, Patricia Dainton as the wife who knows how to take care of herself, and Sandra Dorne as the scheming totsy (pictured above with Wright). Also deserving of mention is Anita Sharp-Bolster as the housekeeper who named the invisible poltergeist Patrick after her husband because she never sees either one of them. The potentially exciting climax, which involves a nearly apocalyptic storm, suffers from the film’s low budget, but generally this was fun. [Amazon Streaming]

Friday, February 23, 2018


A man (in thick obvious make-up) rigs an elevator to so that the rider, John Devitt, will be killed, then he crosses Devitt's name off of a list, leaving only one name, Adrian Messenger. Next, we see retired MI5 agent Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott, pictured) at a fox hunt at the estate of the Marquis of Gleneyre where he is approached by his old friend, Adrian Messenger, and given a copy of the list with his name on it that we've already seen. Messenger asks Gethryn to track down these people while he takes a trip to Canada. Gethryn agrees, but at the airport, Messenger takes a kindly vicar's overflow luggage with him on the plane. We then see the vicar enter an airport restroom and remove his facial make-up and the next thing we know, the plane has exploded thanks to a bomb in the vicar's luggage. A surviving passenger named Le Borg hears Messenger's dying words, and he is visited in the hospital by both Gethryn and Messenger's cousin Lady Jocelyn (Dana Wynter). After some sleuthing and tracking down of men and information, Gethryn realizes that all the men on the list were POWs in Burma and the killer, George Brougham (Kirk Douglas), has been using elaborate disguises to kill of these men to hide the secret that he was an informer during the war which might stymie his claim to the Marquis's estate. But he needs to get rid of one more person to inherit an estate and live easy: the Marquis' young grandson.

I remember seeing this overly tricky and somewhat fussy mystery thriller at the age of 9 and realizing that it felt different from the average Hollywood movie. Back then, I couldn't put my finger on why, but now I see that: 1) it has the feel of what would today be an indie movie—and indeed, director John Huston frequently made his films outside the studio system, even if a studio did step in to distribute them; 2) it was made in Ireland; 3) chunks of dialogue are rather badly overdubbed. At the time of release, the big draw for the film was the presence of several big name actors (Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster) playing cameos in heavy disguise, though this ends up being more distracting than fun, and certainly not essential to the storyline, except for the disguises of Kirk Douglas, whose role is much bigger than a cameo. The mystery is not terribly involving, though Scott makes the movie worth watching. I suspect Huston's heart was more into filming in Ireland and going on fox hunts rather than in making a coherent movie. Also with Herbert Marshall and Gladys Cooper in their twilight years. Interesting more as a curio than anything else. [TCM]