Tuesday, December 06, 2016

ONCE A DOCTOR (1937)

Dr. Frank Brace is a big shot at the city hospital, and his two sons are interns following in his footsteps. However, unknown to dad, Jerry (Gordon Oliver) is an irresponsible lout with a drinking problem, and his foster brother Steven (Donald Woods) is always covering up for him. Dr. Nordland, inventor of the Nordland compressions used in heart surgery, plans to make Steven his assistant, but fate has other plans. One night Steven takes over for another intern, but Jerry, out for a drunken joy ride with his girlfriend Ruby, has an accident and takes Ruby home instead of to the hospital, and talks Steven into leaving the hospital to attend to her while he promises to take over Steven's duties. Steven tries to help Ruby but she dies, and at the hospital, the drunken Jerry passes out, failing to attend to a particular patient who also dies. Steven tries to get cowardly Jerry to fess up that everything was his fault, but Jerry double-crosses his brother in front of their father and Steven loses his medical license. Nordland, who still has faith in Steven, hires him to be a nurse at a clinic for the poor with the understanding that he cannot perform operations. But when an emergency arises and Nordland is out of town, Steven operates using the Nordland compressions. The child dies and Steven is sentenced to a year in jail for operating without a license.

In the meantime, Jerry has started dating Nordland's daughter Paula (Jean Muir) even though Steven was sweet on her before. Nordland gives Steven one more chance, running a clinic in Cuba where he will able to practice medicine legally. Also on their way to Cuba for a vacation are Jerry, his dad, and his girlfriend. During a storm at sea, drunken Jerry gets in trouble again and Steven, again, could help out. Will he? And if he does, will he gain redemption or just get trampled over by his brother? This is an hour-long melodrama from the Warner Brothers B-movie unit, the best in the business, so you know you’re in good hands from the start. Woods is always a solid B-lead, and Oliver is fine as the rat-fink brother. Muir is a little one-note, but she doesn’t get in the way of the two male leads. Character actor stalwarts Joseph King (as the father) and Henry Kolker (as the surgeon) are pros. There is a lot of plot in this short movie, but that helps keep it moving, even though some of the twists feel rather improbable. Pictured are Oliver and Woods. [TCM]

Friday, December 02, 2016

ALIAS JOHN PRESTON (1955)

The residents of the small British town of Deanbridge include banker Dick Sanford, his daughter Sally, newspaper editor Joe, and Joe's son (and local golf champion) Bob. Sally has been dating Bob but has come to find him a little on the boring side when a new gentleman arrives in the village: the wealthy and slightly mysterious John Preston (Christopher Lee). He claims to have been buddies during the war with a soldier from Deanbridge who was killed. Now, John wants to live in peace and quiet, so he buys up property and rebuilds some moribund businesses, and soon he has become a well-respected community member. He also begins dating Sally, much to Bob's annoyance. But when the local hospital hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Walton (Alexander Knox), John expresses anger, dismissing analysis as no better than voodoo. Bob, spiraling downward after Sally announces her forthcoming marriage to John, plans to shoot John but can't bring himself to do so. Instead, he starts sessions with Walton, trying to work out his anger issues. Surprisingly, Walton soon has another patient: Preston, who has been having recurring nightmares in which he imagines that he is not really John Preston at all. Does Preston have a split personality? Is he dangerous to himself or others? Do his dreams that he has killed a blackmailer mean anything?

The fact that Christopher Lee stars is reason enough for most film fans to assume that this is a horror movie, but it's actually a rather bloodless psychological thriller. Lee gives a good performance as the conflicted hero (or is it anti-hero?), but the rest of the acting is only so-so, the pace is slow, and over forty minutes go by before we get to the meat of the plot, meaning that over half the movie is exposition—and largely beside-the-point information at that. I was never exactly bored, but I realized about 25 minutes in that I had no idea where the narrative was going—not because of any postmodern trickery but just due to lack of incident. There is quite a bit going on in the last section of the movie but it's too little, too late. Knox, whom I like, has the second largest role but is given little to do except listen to people talk. Betta St. John (Sally) co-stars with Lee in a much better movie, HORROR HOTEL. Not a bad movie, really, but not the thriller it seems to want to be. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

OLD ENGLISH (1930)

George Arliss is the aging chairman of a shipbuilding company; near 80, he is described by board members as "very feeble," and indeed, he always needs a pull to get up out of his chair. Creditors suggest that Arliss declare bankruptcy, but we find out that he has illegitimate grandchildren he wants to be sure are taken care of, so he engages in shady dealings to get them an inheritance. When one of his creditors (Murray Kinnel) finds out what's going on, he tries to blackmail the old man. [SPOILER]: To escape exposure, Arliss, who has been warned to take it easy on food and drink, treats himself to a huge final meal of rich food and drink, and dies in his chair.

This is a lesser Arliss vehicle. It's basically a filmed stage play, taking place entirely on a couple of sets, and focuses completely on the Arliss character; it's not literally a one-man show—a number of minor characters pop on and off, none of them fleshed out—but it might as well be. Even in a weak film, Arliss is fun to watch; however, his showpiece near the end, as he enjoys his suicidal meal, goes on a bit too long even for me, an Arliss fan. There are some amusing lines: Arliss calls his brandy "Mother's milk"; he uses expressions like, "Oh, my hat!" and "Oh, my grandmother’s wig!"; he refers to someone as "milk and water masquerading as port wine." There is a secondary plot concerning a young man in love with Arliss' granddaughter, but it comes to little. This film is part of a DVD boxed set of Arliss movies, but none of them (the others are A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY and THE KING'S VACATION) are among his best. Still, it's good to have some Arliss available. [DVD]

Friday, November 25, 2016

THE SLAVE (1962)

In 48 BC, Julius Caesar sends loyal soldier Randus (Steve Reeves) on a mission to Egypt, ostensibly as a representative of Caesar but actually to spy on Crassus, a Roman governor who is suspected of plotting against the Empire. On the way, Randus saves Saide, a slave girl, from the whip of her overseer and she joins him. Their ship is lost in the fog and hits a reef; they survive, but while they struggle through the desert, they are captured by slave traders. The slave Gular recognizes an amulet Randus wears as having belonged to the legendary slave Spartacus who led a revolt against Rome some years ago before being crucified by Crassus. At first, Randus dismisses this and eventually finds his way to Crassus where he is taken into the court. But soon, he is operating under two identities: during the day, he appears to be just a loyal Roman centurion at Crassus' beck and call, but by night, he wears a mask, strips down to sweaty muscleman togs, and leads a band of slaves fighting for freedom. A large painted "S," the former sign of Spartacus, is left behind whenever the slaves attack—shades of Zorro—fomenting the rumor that Spartacus has somehow returned. Crassus doesn't become too concerned until he finds an "S" on his own bedroom wall. Given that the original Italian title of this film is SON OF SPARTACUS, it's not hard to predict that this is heading to another "I am Spartacus" finale.

The presence of a bare-chested Steve Reeves on the poster for this movie would seem to promise a typical Hercules-type adventure; on a production level, that's what this is: a (high) B-grade sword-and-sandal film. But in content (and intention), this really is trying to be a sequel to SPARTACUS. It contains one of Reeves' best performances—despite the awkward dubbing—and the plot is more complex than that of the usual Italian peplum film of the era. The sets and costumes look good, and the violence is amped up a bit. There is a (not terribly graphic) decapitation—in fact, if you blink, you’ll miss it; I had to back the DVD up to be sure I'd seen what I thought I saw. There's also a very cool death-by-molten-gold scene. The director, Sergio Corbucci, has a nice eye for pictorial composition, and it helps that many exteriors were shot in Egypt. The acting is passable and better—in addition to Reeves, there’s Jacques Sernas as Vero, the man who first recognizes Randus' parentage; Claudio Gora as Crassus; and Gianna Maria Canale as Crassus' wife. Frankly, though SPARTACUS is the higher quality movie, it's always struck me as overlong and overdone; this was almost more enjoyable as entertainment. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

THE PHYNX (1970)

The Super Secret Agency has its office entrance behind a men's room stall in an International House of Pancakes. Their latest mission: sneak into Albania and rescue a slew of pop culture celebrities who have been kidnapped. The disappearance of folks like Johnny Weissmuller, Edgar Bergen, Butterfly McQueen, Rudy Vallee, and Col. Sanders of KFC fame is lowering the morale of American citizens, and superspy Corrigan (Lou Antonio) can't get past Rostinov (Michael Ansara) who guards the Albanian border. One idea is to parachute Bob Hope in and Albania will think that a war has been declared. But the supercomputer (named Motha and shaped like a buxom woman) comes up with another plan: put together a pop group, get them a big following, and have them visit Albania on the pretext of giving a concert. Four young men are chosen to form a band called the Phynx (pronounced "Finks"); there's the cute one, the jock, the black guy, and the Native American. First, they're sent through boot camp, then renowned (and nutty) producer Philbaby is brought in to make their first album. They appear on Ed Sullivan, and James Brown gives them their gold record.

In Europe, agent Martha Raye—who wears a "Rosebud" bracelet—reveals that a map to the Albanian castle where the celebs are being held is tattooed in three parts on the stomachs of three lovely young women, which leads to all manner of lurid behavior (X-ray glasses, 1000 one-night stands—actually more like 10-minute stands) to find the three bellies and the map. Albania extends "the warm fist of friendship" to the band, they attend the National Flower Festival—their flower is the radish—and eventually make it to the castle where they find the celebrities. In the end, they all get away when the Phyn'’s rock and roll performance causes the castle walls to collapse. Yes, rock and roll saves American popular culture!

I have long wanted to see his notorious movie because of the long list of classic-era names putting in cameos—in addition to those named above, we see Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Maureen O’Sullivan (who gets a cute scene of banter with her former Tarzan co-star Weissmuller), Xavier Cugat, Busby Berkeley, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor (blink and you'll miss him) and Pat O'Brien (whom Gorcey calls "Father" in reference to their 30s movie ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES) among many others. George Tobias and Joan Blondell have more substantive roles as the rulers of Albania. There seems to be some debate as to whether or not this movie ever got an official release, but over the years, it has gotten a reputation as one of the worst of the worst. Surprise: it's actually fun. A good movie? Not really, but I had great fun watching it and I can imagine watching it again sometime. It helps that it's meant to be stupidly funny, so when they throw everything against the wall, a few things have to stick. Lou Antonio as the spy boss is good, though it took a while for him to grow on me. Less amusing is Mike Kellin as Antonio's boss. The band members are fine, though only one (Lonny Stevens) has gone on to other movie credits. The others, for the record, are A. Michael Miller (the cute one), Ray Chippeway, and Dennis Larden. Sadly, the music, though not awful, is not memorable, despite the fact that all the songs were written by Leiber and Stoller, co-writers of many great rock hits ("Hound Dog," "On Broadway," "Stand By Me"). Most critics dismiss this as a mess, but Paul Tabili at DVD Drive-In hits the nail on the head when he compares its "vibe" to that of the TV show Laugh-In. It doesn’t work for Tabili but it mostly worked for me. Others reactions are bound to be similarly scattershot. If you have any interest in either the late-60s comic ethos or the classic stars gathered here, you should see this one. Pictured at right are Joan Blondell and Col. Sanders. [TCM]

Monday, November 21, 2016

ESCAPE FROM EAST BERLIN (1962)

aka TUNNEL 28

In 1961, East Germany, under Russian control, built a wall to separate East and West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was heavily guarded by armed patrols to stop East Berliners from escaping, either to join relatives who had already left or to get out from under Communist rule. This film's focus is on Kurt (Don Murray), a mechanic and driver for Major Eckhardt. Kurt is a carefree young man, still living with his family in East Berlin and engaged in a clandestine affair with the Major's buxom wife. One night after work, he hitches a ride with Gunther, a fellow driver, hoping to talk him into sharing a beer. But the nervous Gunther drops Kurt off, then turns his truck around and races desperately for the wall. His truck does crash through, but he winds up tangled in barbed wire and killed by guards. The next day, Kurt runs into Gunther's sister Erika (Christine Kaufmann), who makes a half-hearted attempt to break through some barbed wire at a less-guarded area of the wall. She is certain that her brother got through, but Kurt can't bring himself to tell her the truth, though he does hide her when some suspicious guards come after her. Soon Kurt finds himself pressured—by Erika, by a potentially blackmailing neighbor, and by the presence of a stranger named Brunner (Werner Klemperer) whose motives for hanging around Kurt's family’s house are unclear—into attempting an escape by tunneling under the Wall.

Based on an actual escape that occurred only months before shooting on the film (in West Berlin) began, this is a low-key thriller whose main suspense is generated not so much by the escape at the end—which actually feels a little rushed and anti-climactic—but by the character development of Kurt from unambitious playboy to committed hero. Though derided by some critics as too bland and Midwestern, Murray brings a certain easy charm to his part and does a decent job of showing his (mostly internal) struggle with committing to political action—albeit mostly because he falls in love with Erika. Klemperer nicely underplays the wild card character. Tension is kept up well throughout without much in the way of histrionics or bombast. Robert Siodmak, the director, was known for his film noirs of the 40s (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE DARK MIRROR) and this movie has a dash of the noir flavor in its shadowy nighttime scenes. Not a masterpiece but enjoyable. [TCM]

Friday, November 11, 2016

AFTER TONIGHT (1933)

In a Luxembourg train station at the outbreak of World War I, a lovely nightclub singer (Constance Bennett) is trying desperately to get a train to Vienna, but with hundreds of tourists also eager to get out, she's having problems. Dashing German soldier Gilbert Roland gets her passage with him on a train and they seem to hit it off, but she leaves at the first stop and he's mystified. Roland is on the lookout for the spies that are leaking German plans to the Russians, but he doesn’t realize that he's just let a successful spy slip through his fingers. We see Bennett traipsing across Austria smuggling information out via messages sewn in coats and written in invisible ink in books. Eventually she is reunited with Roland and later, when she seems to be caught red-handed, Roland, blinded by his love, lets her go, but soon his sense of duty gets the best of him and her sets her up to be caught for good this time. This is a well-made spy thriller that nevertheless doesn't rise above average. It seems very mechanical, like a script written to certain specifications. The spy details are fun, but nothing very exciting happens until the end, and even there the action feels perfunctory. I'm not a big fan of Constance Bennett; she always seems to be a little bored or just not altogether present, and that's pretty much how she is here. Roland is better but there's no real chemistry at work between the two. The ending is almost comical. For fans of Bennett or of the genre. [TCM]

I'm heading off on the final Turner Classic Movies cruise so this blog will go dark for about a bit, but I'll be back before Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

ELEVEN MEN AND A GIRL (1930)

Upton College has had a losing football team for years and the trustees have told the president that if his team can't beat Parsons, their chief rival, he'll be forced out. Star player Speed Yates (Joe E. Brown) convinces Nan, the president's daughter (Joan Bennett), to take off her glasses and flirt with star players from other colleges to get them to come to Upton so they'll have a winning team next term. She manages, with some unspoken promises of love (or at least lust), to snag eleven football stars—played by the real-life All-American football team of 1929—with a twelfth player, rich cocky Tommy (James Hall), being a bit of a question mark because his father won't let him go to Upton. But Nan and Tommy click and he enrolls under an assumed name. Complications arise when the other eleven players realize they've been bamboozled by Nan—when Tommy finds out, he says to her, "This college is too small for you; you should have joined the Navy!" When Tommy's father discovers his subterfuge, he tries to have his son pulled out of school on the eve of the big game. Will this be Upton's last stand?

As early-talkie college romance movies go, this is rather fun even if the acting is not top-notch. One doesn't expect the football players to be great actors, though a couple of them seem to be having fun, and Bill Banker from Tulane has a fun scene in which Bennett serenades him, but the leads seem less than fully involved in their roles. Hall, playing the juvenile lead, was 30 and looked it. Bennett seems stiff, and Brown has little to do after the opening scenes—which is OK by me as I'm not really a fan. But still, the film has a nice, buoyant feel and a couple of scenes are memorable: one with a bear on the ground and Bennett up a tree, and one in which all the players pretend to be drunk and unable to take the field in order to get back at Bennett. Also released as MAYBE IT'S LOVE, the song Bennett sings to Bill Banker. [TCM]

Monday, November 07, 2016

SHADOW OF CHINATOWN (1936)

Reporters in San Francisco think a Tong war has started in Chinatown, but actually a cabal of Eurasian merchants led by Sonja Rokoff has hired a fix-it man named Poten (Bela Lugosi) to get rid of Chinese competitors in the import business. Society reporter Joan Whiting tries to get mystery novelist Martin Andrews to help her find out who's behind the violence in Chinatown, hoping that breaking the story will get her a better job—and also, perhaps, hoping to land Martin as a husband though he seems to mostly find her a pest. The Eurasian Poten hates both the Chinese and Caucasians and plans to use his scientific prowess to develop plans to destroy the races and start a new mixed race (with, one assumes, himself as the "father"). Joan and Martin eventually figure out Poten's plan and also realize that he has put Sonja, who now regrets her role in the Chinatown plot, under his hypnotic power. The two follow Poten to Los Angeles and back in their attempt to stop his dastardly plan, the specifics of which are never really made clear.

This is a 70 minute version of a 15-chapter serial with the same title that ran for over 4-1/2 hours. That’s probably the reason why this story, after it gets going, makes little sense—even my general plot summary above is based to some degree on hunches rather than full knowledge of the events as played out. Clearly most of the cliffhangers and action scenes have been stuffed into this version with little regard for the niceties of narrative or character. Bruce Bennett (here acting under his birth name Herman Brix, also the name under which he won a medal at the 1928 Olympics) is disappointing as Martin, the hero; he looks the part but recites most of his lines as if he hadn’t seen a script until moments before the cameras started turning. Joan Barclay, who never broke out of B-movies, is at least energetic and appealing as the heroine. Better still is Luana Walters as Sonja—though she doesn't come off as Eurasian, she does manage to project an exotic mystique and wind up as a sympathetic character in the end. Strangely, Lugosi lets us down here; his ripe enthusiastic manner is toned down here, and the movie definitely suffers. Production values are particularly poor, lower than the average B-movie serial. Given how much of the original film is missing, I'm tempted to watch the serial someday, but I have a feeling I'd wind up asleep in the middle of chapter 2. (The pictured poster is for chapter 1 of the serial) [YouTube]

Friday, November 04, 2016

X MARKS THE SPOT (1942)

Eddie (Damien O’Flynn) is a private detective, son of an Irish cop, who is taking a post with Army Intelligence in a couple of days. His dad has the bad luck to run into gangster Marty (Jack La Rue) as he's hijacking two trucks filled with tires (in wartime, tires were in high demand for their rubber and became essentially a controlled substance). Marty shoots the cop dead and Eddie, naturally, gets himself involved, trying to track down the killer in the few days of freedom he has left. This B-mystery is rather messy in its details and cheap in its look, but it has a few points of interest. Local clubs and diners use what amounts to a human jukebox; the patron inserts money and talks to an operator at a central location, requesting a certain song which she then plays. I have no idea if this was ever a real thing, but it's crucial to the plot for two reasons: the operator (Helen Parrish) gets involved in the case, and at one point, she announces an air raid blackout which is called in—and which turns out to be a false alarm, rigged up so a character can be killed in the dark yet still in public. O’Flynn is a bland leading man, with Parrish only marginally better. Much better are La Rue (as the baddie), Dick Purcell (as a police lieutenant), and Neil Hamilton (as the owner of the tires). As far as the title, there is no "X," just a place run by Marty called the One Spot CafĂ©. Completely average of its type. Pictured are O'Flynn and Parrish. [YouTube]