Friday, December 08, 2017

THE GREAT MAN (1957)

Beloved radio star Herb Fuller has just died in a car accident and Amalgamated Broadcasting System is planning a memorial broadcast. Joe Harris (Jose Ferrer), a drama critic for the network, is asked by Sid Moore, Fuller's former manager, to put together and host the tribute, implying that this might get the network to anoint Harris as their new star, though Carleton, the network boss, is making no promises. A theater that is about to be torn down is rented out for Fuller's memorial and Harris attends, tape recorder in hand, to get the varied reactions of mourners, from people who hung on his every broadcast word to people who barely knew who he was but knew he was a celebrity. But as Harris seeks out comments from people who actually knew him—including an ex-mistress, a press agent, and his first boss—he discovers that Fuller was not well liked. An even more disturbing story crops up when a drunken Moore reveals that Fuller faked some of his respected wartime broadcasts. Harris has to decide whether to present a whitewashed version of Fuller's life for the broadcast, or tell the unvarnished truth, a decision made more difficult when he discovers he's being used as a pawn in a power play between Moore and the network.

Many viewers notice this film's initial narrative and thematic resemblances to CITIZEN KANE (a posthumous investigation behind a great man to reveal a very flawed man) but this movie, though interesting, declines to use visual style in any compelling way and comes off more like a filmed TV play than a richly imagined movie. Ferrer, who also directed, remains a bland, mostly passive observer with little personality—though he does have a breakthrough moment at the end—but the main reason to watch this film is for a handful of non-showy but excellent performances. Julie London (pictured), as the former lover, a singer who was helped then thrown away by Fuller, is subtly heartbreaking; Ed Wynn, known best as a vaudeville comic—and known by me mostly as the floating Uncle Albert in MARY POPPINS—also has a surprisingly subtle turn as the small town radio station owner who was one of the first people that Fuller stepped on; Dean Jagger plays the network boss, whose motives in his game-playing are a bit murky—his scene near the end in which he explains the lay of the land to Ferrer is reminiscent of the darker speech that Ned Beatty gives to Peter Finch in NETWORK. Some critics also like Keenan Wynn (Ed's son) as Sid Moore, but I found him grating and obvious, especially as he is surrounded by quieter, more effective performers. An interesting movie than I wish was a little more powerful. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

WATUSI (1959)

H. Rider Haggard's character Allen Quatermain is an adventurer who appeared in several stories and novels beginning in the 1880s. He was surely an inspiration for Indiana Jones, and some may know him today as a character in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But his most famous exploit was probably as a hunter of hidden African treasure in King Solomon's Mines which has been adapted to the screen a few times, most notably in 1950. The main character in this film is Harry, Quatermain's son (George Montgomery), who comes back to Africa in 1919 to find the fabled gems of King Solomon's mines. He seeks out his father's guide Rick (David Farrar) to help him. Rick has sunk into a life of lazy monotony but quickly regains the taste for adventure. When Rick cautions Harry about the dangers ahead, Harry shows him a medallion with a green gem that was given to his father by a Watusi chief which he assumes will ease his way across the land of the Watusis. Along the way, they rescue Erica (Tania Elg), the daughter of a missionary, from a native attack and she joins their trek, though when it comes out that she is German, Harry gives her the cold shoulder; he hates Germans because his wife and child were killed in a U-boat attack during the war. The group endures mosquitoes and an animal stampede, but it isn't until Harry gets deathly sick with fever and Erica nurses him back to health that the two become chummy, though by that time Rick has also fallen for Erica. Eventually they reach the site of the legendary treasure, a mountain with a series of caves filled with molten lava. Will they find the gems, and if so, will they survive the mountain and the romantic triangle?

I've not yet seen a version of King Solomon's Mines, but apparently this MGM B-film (more a sequel than a remake) makes extensive use of footage from their 1950 version, and it's fairly obvious; whenever lots of animals appear or when the film gets a little dingy and damaged, that means 1950 footage. At times it's well integrated but also sometimes jarring. Otherwise, this is largely a Tarzan movie without a Tarzan. George Montgomery (pictured) fulfills his B-movie action hero requirements fairly well: he's handsome, he's occasionally shirtless, he shoots at bad guys, leaps across fiery chasms, and (eventually) romances the woman. Farrar and Elg are fine, and it's fun to see Dan Seymour, Rick's doorman in CASABLANCA, in a small role. If you like the 50s Tarzan films, this is for you. [TCM]

Friday, December 01, 2017

MUSIC IN THE AIR (1934)

In the Bavarian village of Abendorf, we see handsome schoolteacher Karl enjoying a vigorous climb in the mountains—represented by matte paintings, true, but still lovely to look at. Later in his classroom, Karl frees a chirping bird from a boy's desk and it flies to the window of music professor Walter who is inspired to write a melody based on the bird's singing; he then asks Karl—who is in love with Walter's daughter Sieglinde—to write lyrics, and when they perform the song at the local festival, it's a hit. The town council then gives Walter money to travel to Munich (along with Karl and Sieglinde) to try and sell his song to his old buddy Ernst who now runs a music publishing company. They are welcomed with open arms by Ernst who agrees to put the song into an operetta he's producing, but our small-town trio winds up smack in the middle of a tussle between Frieda, the prima donna starring in the show, and Bruno, the librettist. To make Bruno jealous, Frieda sets her cap for the innocent Karl, and then Bruno goes after Sieglinde. Things get so bad, the future of the show—and Walter's song—is in doubt. Can true love prevail AND the show go on?

This little-seen gem is great fun, as good as the more famous Ernst Lubitsch musicals of the era (ONE HOUR WITH YOU, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT). It was directed by German exile Joe May in a fizzy, stylish manner, though this would be his high point in America as he went on to do a string of unsuccessful B-films. The star is Gloria Swanson who has a field day as the prima donna; John Boles as her jealous lover isn't quite in Swanson's league, but he doesn't hurt the movie. The handsome Douglass Montgomery (pictured) and the lovely June Lang are just right as the young lovers, and there is strong support from Al Shean as the music professor, Reginald Owen as his old friend, and Joseph Cawthorn as his business associate. (Marjorie Main is in the cast list, but I didn't notice her.) The songs, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein are pleasant, though none went on to become standards as far as I know. Best scene: Swanson and Boles energetically acting out the first part of the unfinished operetta for the producers. My favorite moment: Montgomery helps a secretary reach a high shelf by literally grabbing her ass and hoisting her; when Swanson walks past and sees this, she says, admiringly, "Probably raised on goat's milk." [TCM]

Monday, November 27, 2017

DOUBLE DANGER (1938)

A jeweler (Donald Meek) has the valuable Conger diamonds in his possession and is worried about a notorious jewel thief known as The Gentleman getting away with them. The police commissioner (Samuel Hinds) has two suspects in mind: the author of a series of books based on the exploits of The Gentleman (Preston Foster) and an attractive blonde (Whitney Bourne), and Hinds invites both for a weekend house party, hoping to catch the Gentleman (or Lady) in the act. Hinds has produced an imitation set of diamonds—the real ones in a black box, the fakes in a white box. But before the party, the real diamonds are stolen through a clever ruse by Bourne and her associate (Paul Guilfoyle), then stolen from them by Foster and his valet sidekick (Cecil Kellaway). But at the house party, Hinds and Meek present the fakes as the real ones, starting another round of potential one-upmanship between Foster and Bourne. Of course, soon romantic sparks fly between the two, complicating things. The plotting is clever and the actors make the most of this second-feature caper flick, even if things begin to bog down a bit in the middle of this hour-long film. Foster is probably the weakest link, partly because sly old dog Kellaway steals many of his scenes. I enjoyed Bourne who was basically a socialite who dabbled in films, appearing in less than a dozen movies in the 30s before retiring. Arthur Lake, who would find a modicum of screen immortality as Dagwood in the Blondie movies of the 40s, is fun in role that is practically a tryout for his Dagwood mannerisms. Minor but fun. Pictured are Bourne and Foster. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963)

In this Walt Disney fantasy film, an animated retelling of the King Arthur origin story, the king of England is dead and there is no successor yet; whoever is destined to be king will be able to pull a magic sword out of a stone, but none of the men—able-bodied or not—has been able to accomplish the task. A young orphan known as Wart (real name Arthur—hint, hint), who performs squire duties for Sir Ector and his thuggish son Kay, is taken in by the magician Merlin and taught a series of life lessons, mostly by being turning him into a series of animals and having to get out of scrapes with other animals. Of course, what Merlin knows that no one else does is that Wart is the one who can pull the sword from the stone. I saw this when it was first released (I was 7) and I loved it—its color scheme of blues, greens and purples is gorgeous; Wart's animal adventures seemed magical, and there's even a proper wizard duel between Merlin and the wicked Madam Mim. I also remember hearing the distinctive voice of TV actor Sebastian Cabot as Ector, probably the first time I recognized a celebrity voice in an animated movie. But this does not stand up to critical scrutiny 50+ years later. Usually the glow of nostalgia will prop these childhood favorites up for me, but I had to struggle to stick with this to the end. Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that animated films have changed so much over the years; not just the present-day glossy CGI but also the fast pace, the snarky humor, and the relentless action sequences. But there's also this: the movie is just plain boring. The bulk of the action concerns Wart's magical transformations, and after you've seen him learn a couple of lessons, you're ready for something else. The songs are by the Sherman brothers, who would, a year later, create such wonderful music for MARY POPPINS, but these songs are generally instantly forgettable. I did like the owl Archimedes, and the conclusion, though lacking in heft, is nice. I will always carry warm memories of this with me, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It's possible that today's kids will enjoy it, but probably just the youngest. [DVD]

Monday, November 20, 2017

SALOMÉ (1922)

In this silent film version of the Oscar Wilde play, based on a story from the gospels, Herod has married Herodias, his brother's widow, but he lusts after his stepdaughter Salomé (Alla Nazivoma, at left), who is also lusted after by Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard. But Salomé only has eyes for the imprisoned John the Baptist, mostly out of stubbornness because he stoically resists all of her erotic entreaties. One night at a large feast, Salomé ignores her stepfather and flounces about outside as Narraboth pines away, in thrall to both her and the full moon. She connives to get John, shaggy and dressed only in a ratty loincloth, released from his underground cell and taunts him with demands for a kiss: "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth! I will kiss thy mouth!" He remains defiant, and when what looks a shadow of a fist passes over the moon, he proclaims that the Angel of Death is nigh. The petulant Herod demands Salomé's attention, offering her anything she wants if she'll dance for him. Her demand: the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter—she'll get her kiss one way or another.

The production of this silent film was overseen by the star, often known just by her last name of Nazivoma, directed by her husband Charles Bryant, and written and designed by Natacha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino). The ravishing look of the film is by far the best reason to watch it. Rambova's large set encompassing both the feasting hall and an attached outdoor balcony is inspired by the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley who did the drawings for Wilde's published play, as are the costumes. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie has dated rather badly; your tolerance for exaggerated acting and a camp atmosphere will determine your ability to stay with this to the end.

On balance, I enjoyed this. I watched it as if it were a ballet or a highly ritualized drama, like something performed for acolytes of an ancient mystery religion, which, if we're to believe the rumors, may be close to the truth—supposedly, the entire cast and creative crew were gay or bisexual. I suspect that is not true, and even if it were, I don't know that the film "reads" gay. On the other hand, there is the strange performance of Earl Schenck as Narraboth, who despite his pining for Salomé, seems more interested in messing around with his buddy, Herodias' page, who holds Narraboth's hand and paws at him constantly (pictured at right). Nazivoma is far too old to be playing the teenaged Salomé—frequently seen in close-up, she looks every one of her 42 years—and her facial reactions are never subtle, a problem which is not her fault entirely, as that seems to have been the style in the early 20s. Nigel de Brulier gives an oddly mannered performance as John the Baptist (called Jokaanan here, as in the Wilde play), consisting entirely of looking up or off in another direction instead of at whoever's talking to him. The inevitable beheading and kiss are not shown, perhaps because of skittish censors, which is rather disappointing for a production that is at its best when it heads over the top. It's worth staying to the end, if only for the last shot of Salomé surrounded by men with spears, about to kill her on Herod's command, and the intertitle "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death." I don’t think Salomé loved anyone here—her desire to kiss John seems to spring for a desire to humiliate him and to hurt Herod far more than any love—but it's an interesting note on which to close. [DVD]

Thursday, November 16, 2017

WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER (1922)

Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, is present at a tournament to see brave soldier Charles Brandon win at jousting against the powerful Duke of Buckingham. Sparks fly between the two, but Mary feels like she is "for sale" with the King is attempting to marry her off to diplomatic advantage. At court, an envoy of King Louis XII of France arrives asking for Mary's hand, a match that Henry feels would be to great advantage. Mary, however, seeing a portrait of the aging monarch, throws a fit, yelling, "Would you marry me to this withered wreck of a king?" That night, she sends for Brandon and the two head out for a romantic walk through town, followed by the suspicious Buckingham. They head to an infamous soothsayer who tells her, "You will be Queen of France until you are made happy by a death." On the street, in a brouhaha (planned, I think, by Buckingham) bandits set upon them; Brandon kills one of them and, even though he saved Mary, he is charged with murder. The King excuses him, but in order to get out of the marriage to Louis, Mary and Brandon sneak away from the castle. Eventually, they are tracked down in a tavern where Mary, dressed as a man, has acquitted herself nicely in a brawl. The two are separated and Mary finally agrees to marry Louis as long as Henry promises her that 1) Brandon will have his freedom, and 2) she can have her own pick for a second husband. He agrees, she marries, and sure enough, the soothsayer's prediction comes true.

This silent film was a big deal when it came out; it was the first movie to cost a million dollars to make, had elaborate sets and costumes, and was a big hit. You really have to put yourself in the mindset of a 1920s moviegoer to be impressed with this film, as these kinds of production values quickly became the Hollywood norm. This is not a movie I would pick to introduce a novice to the pleasures of the silent cinema—for one thing, at two hours, it's way too long and drags quite a bit in the last third—but it's enjoyable viewing for film buffs. Its main strength is Marion Davies as Mary; her acting here seems much more natural than that of other stars of the day like Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish. Her light performance carries the film through some rough patches. Lyn Harding is very good as Henry VIII in a sprightly performance that may have inspired Charles Laughton a few years later (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII). The romantic lead, Forest Stanley as Brandon, is not particularly attractive or charismatic, so the instant sparks don't seem real, but he and Davies (pictured) do work up some chemistry. The title seems like a misnomer, as no one in the cast dresses as, or is referred to as, a knight. An interesting specimen from a bygone day. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

PLEASURE CRUISE (1933)

A fun, naughty shot sets the tone for this pre-Code comedy: we see a reclining nude figure from the back; a voice says, "Turn around!" and we discover we are seeing a painting being carried into an auction parlor. Playboy and failed novelist Roland Young, fallen on hard times, is forced to liquidate his estate. He plans to release his fiancée, working girl Genevieve Tobin, from her promise, but she insists that the two can make it in her small apartment on her salary. For a time, their marriage works, but a year later, he's becomes a bored househusband and is getting jealous of all the masculine attention he imagines his wife gets in the business world. Fed up with their sniping at each other, Tobin calls for a "marriage vacation," or at least separate vacations.  She books a pleasure cruise to get away, and Young sneaks his way onto the ship as a barber's assistant, hoping to keep an eye on her while keeping out of sight. Of course, complications ensue: flirty Una O'Connor keeps finding Young in her cabin (because it's next to Tobin’s cabin, he spies on her from there) and thinks he's hot for her; when Young sees men hit on Tobin, he starts spreading rumors about the presence of her brutish ex-husband to dissuade them. Eventually, handsome Ralph Forbes hooks up with Tobin and cannot be scared off. During a costume ball, Forbes shows up dressed as Romeo and makes plans some late-night activity with Tobin in her cabin; Young overhears them, so he goes to great lengths to block her cabin door so Forbes can't visit. But Young, splashing on some of Forbes' cologne, does visit his wife's darkened room and makes love to her, with her assuming he is Forbes. Who will get the last laugh here?

This is both amusing and a little edgy, and in its day must have seemed rather smutty, since the implication is that Tobin fully expects Forbes for a midnight visit and, though we don't see any activity, we must assume that she makes love to Young, thinking he is Forbes. But [SPOILER], in the coda of the film, perhaps as a sop to moralistic censor boards, Tobin claims she knew he was on the ship all along. I think the real story is that she didn't know, but figures it out the next morning and plays along to allay her husband's jealousy. At any rate, this was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Young's sly performance, though his character is not especially likeable. Actually, no one is, so it's difficult to root for anyone. But this does not turn into melodrama so it doesn't really matter. The costume ball has an odd scene: someone comes dressed as Ghandi, and I can't tell if the intent is to mock or admire. It's nice to see Una O'Connor (pictured with Young) play something besides a screaming harridan, and Herbert Mundin has some fun as Young's fellow barber. The plot seems to have been pinched from a play by Molnar which was made into a movie with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as THE GUARDSMAN. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2017

SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956)

The British are in the middle of Operation Stardust, the first manned trip past the upper stratosphere. After a series of failed experiments, they think they are finally ready for the real thing. The crew, all of whom have female troubles, consists of Commander Michael Haydon (Kieron Moore), who is being hassled by Kim, a female reporter (Lois Maxwell) who thinks it's more important to fix things on Earth before running off into space; Jimmy, the communications man whose girlfriend has to fill in at a modeling job the night before the shoot instead of spending the night with him; and Lefty, the co-pilot whose wife is tired of being neglected. The point of the mission seems to simply be to show that such a flight can be done, but what the crew doesn't know until the last minute is that they are to release and explode the experimental Tritonium bomb in space, to show the world that with the existence of such a powerful weapon, any future warfare is futile. The bomb’s inventor, Prof. Merrity (Donald Wolfit) accompanies the crew, posing as a meteorologist until the rocket takes off. Also after takeoff, the men discover that the reporter has stowed away on the ship. Eventually they jettison the rocket, but after the countdown to explosion begins, it winds up attaching itself to the ship and they know of no way to get it loose.

Some sci-fi films are criticized for not doing enough with characterization; this one does perhaps too much. For long stretches, it has more soap-operish melodrama than sci-fi adventure or speculation. Still, it musters up some innocent 50s B-movie charm; for example, the idea that a bomb explosion (set off where it will actually cause no material damage) would somehow make the world abhor war, when the actual horrors of Hiroshima couldn't accomplish that. The sets are fine, though some of the special effects are lacking. Kieron Moore (the lighthouse keeper in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, a scientist in CRACK IN THE WORLD) makes for a generally likeable hero. Sadly, the women (especially Thea Gregory as the frustrated wife) mostly come off as annoying harpies. Maxwell went on to fame as Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond movies through 1985. A watchable if not essential film in the 50s SF canon. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

THE LIGHT THAT FAILED (1939)

A windswept coastline in England, 1865. Young Dick Heldar and his friend Maisie are playing with guns (!) when Maisie accidentally fires toward Dick, resulting in him getting a gunpowder burn near his eye—it's painful but not debilitating. This is to be their last summer together as she's sent off to school, but both vow to grow up and become great artists. Years later, Heldar (Ronald Colman) is a newspaper illustrator and he's in the Sudan with his war correspondent buddy Torpenhow (Walter Huston). While saving Torpenhow's life from a spear attack, he sustains a head wound near the same eye that was injured years ago. After recuperating in Port Said, he is called back to London with news that his war paintings are going over gung ho with the public. This acclaim goes to his head and he devotes himself to selling popular illustration work rather than the classier paintings he is capable of. At the zoo, he runs into Maisie who has become an artist, though a struggling one. Both Maisie and Torpenhow (who lives across the hall from Heldar) urge him to work toward finer things, but he can't give up the easy money he makes. Maisie leaves for Paris and soon Heldar has taken up with a cheap Cockney bargirl and probably part-time prostitute named Bessie (Ida Lupino); she's actually in love with Torpenhow but Heldar scotches that. As he works on what he assumes will be his masterpiece, a portrait of Bessie as the personification of melancholy, he begins a slow descent into blindness due to his war wound. But the worst is yet to come when Bessie, horrified at the portrait, defaces it; he, now completely blind, still thinks it could be his masterpiece, but his friends know it won't.

Based on a Rudyard Kipling novel—though it reminded me more of Somerset Maugham—this film, which was well thought of in its time, has become a dated period piece, the kind of stuffy, slow-moving movie that I imagine young people who don't watch black & white movies think all classic movies are like. I hold Colman (pictured with Lupino) at fault; I generally find him stiff and sluggish, and when his character is supposed to be stiff and sluggish (as in CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR or THE LATE GEORGE APLEY), he's good.  I think he gives his best performance in LOST HORIZON where his natural stiffness works well playing a man who becomes somewhat heroic despite himself. But here, Colman makes Heldar a drip, someone whom I don't want to watch a movie about. The supporting cast is better, especially Huston and Lupino. I was quite restless through the last half, but the beautifully shot final scene almost made it worth my time. This film doesn’t crop up a lot, but I don’t think that's a loss to film history. [TCM]