Friday, November 30, 2001


What an odd little movie! Bogart, in his pre-star days, plays the promoter of a wrestler (Nat Pendleton) who sets up a fight between Pendleton and a female blacksmith (Louise Fazenda). The wrestler and the blacksmith fall in love and Pendleton refuses to fight her; instead he has to wrestle a rival for the woman's love--played by a very hairy actor named Daniel Boone Savage who, according to IMDb had no other roles in the history of film. It's set in a "hillbilly" town and there are occasional bursts of song and dance for no particular reason. The backwoods music reminded me of the music in OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, except played for laughs instead of authenticity. Penny Singleton plays Bogie's long suffering girl friend, in a relationship like the one between Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS. All this and Bogart playing comedy (and he seems palably uneasy here) really does make this an unusual movie--not a must-see, by any means, but, er, well, unique.

Two of my favorite Warner Brothers stock players are paired up here, as they were frequently throughout the decade: Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh. The two settled into predictable bits by the late 30's, but I've enjoyed both in earlier films: Jenkins in THE MERRY FRINKS, McHugh in ONE WAY PASSAGE and the two together in TOMORROW AT SEVEN and HAVANA WIDOWS. McHugh added a nice touch to B movies like SNOWED UNDER and MOONLIGHT MURDER, but he's probably best remembered as Bing Crosby's buddy/fellow priest in GOING MY WAY.

Thursday, November 29, 2001


I've wanted to see this for a long time, ever since I was 12 years old and noticed the entry for this in the "TV Key Movie Guide," a forerunner to Leonard Maltin's guide. I thought the title sounded cool! After all these years, it was a bit of a letdown, mostly due to the male actors. In plot and details, it's practically an archtypal Gothic, with elements of JANE EYRE, REBECCA, and GASLIGHT, but the whole is less than the parts. Gene Tierney is quite good as the poor girl called to stay with her rich relation (Vincent Price) to be a companion to his daughter. Tierney gets a crush on Price, Price's wife dies (mysteriously, of course) and Price marries Tierney, looking primarily for a male heir. Price really drags the movie down--he is just not romantic figure material. Thank goodness for his career that he got into horror movies. Even worse is Glenn Langan as the kind-hearted village doctor; I know him mostly as THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN ten years later. I can understand from this movie why his career never really took off. His acting is bland and his looks are off-kilter--he looks a bit like a drag queen who forgot to take off all of his makeup. Spring Byington plays against type as a non-whimsical, non-scatterbrained housekeeper. There are plotholes galore--at one point, the daughter just vanishes from the story, never to be seen again. The studiobound atmosphere serves its purpose. The movie's not terrible, but it's not a must-see either.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001


This turned out to be quite a good movie, although I had my doubts in the beginning. Apparently MGM publicized it as a musical, and there are indeed a couple of numbers featuring Jean Harlow, one of which is reminiscent of the larger-than-life Busby Berekley production numbers, but with none of Berekley's wit or flair. It begins with the pace and tone of a screwball comedy, setting up a "zany" romantic triangle with Harlow as a singer, William Powell as her agent who harbors a crush on her but because he's not the marrying kind, does nothing about it, and Franchot Tone as a rich playboy (is there such a thing as a poor playboy?) who sweeps Harlow off her feet.

Things are light for about 20 minutes, then it takes a oddly serious turn as Harlow and Tone elope, very much against the wishes of Tone's family. Powell takes it on the chin but keeps his disappointment hidden. Then it becomes something of a melodrama, with dunkneness and heartbreak and suicide. The actors keep it interesting. As usual, Powell and Harlow are wonderful, and the strong supporting cast includes May Robson as Harlow's feisty grandmother and Rosalind Russell as Tone's ex-fiance, who turns out, against expectations, to be a good egg. Actually, one interesting thing about this movie is that ultimately, there are no "villains," just people who are misunderstood or who misunderstand. Apparently, it was based on the life of singer Libby Holman, but some elements of the lead character must have hit close to home for Harlow.

Tuesday, November 27, 2001


It wouldn't have seemed like a real holiday if I hadn't watched an Astaire/Rogers movie. The very first one I ever saw was TOP HAT, and I saw it after coming home at 2 in the morning from a New Year's Eve party many years ago. I was instantly and thoroughly charmed. Even since then, I've always tried to watch one of their movies on major holidays. This was the last in the series they made at RKO. They would make one more together 10 years later, THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, which, like CASTLE, was a show-biz bio. The differences were that CASTLE was based on a true story and BARKLEYS was not, and CASTLE was very good but BARKLEYS was not--it felt forced and leaden. In fact, I think not liking BARKELYS was why I had avoided watching CASTLE for so long.

Certainly the dance numbers in CASTLE aren't nearly as fun and imaginative as those in the rest of the RKO movies, but Astaire and Rogers get a chance to truly *act*, playing fully realized characters instead of cardboard figures existing simply to have dance numbers built around them. Don't get me wrong--I love TOP HAT and GAY DIVORCEE and FOLLOW THE FLEET and most of the rest of their whimiscal, art-deco romance musicals, but this one feels more mature and more involving. The Castles were a dancing team from the WWI era (Irene, still alive in '39, served as an advisor on the film). The movie follows their career and relationship over the years. Instead of the usual second banana, Edward Everett Horton, we have Edna May Oliver, who also has a good character to work with, and plays against type as a rich and sophisticated woman-about-town who becomes the Castles' manager and close friend. I love Oliver and this may be my favorite among the performances of hers that I've seen. All in all, highly recommended.

Monday, November 26, 2001


This was a pleasant little trifle, sort of like a TV variety show except with a (slim) plot and at feature-film length. It was centered around the real-life Hollywood Canteen where stars waited on, danced with, and performed for servicemen during WWII. The plot involves two servicemen (Robert Hutton and Dane Clark) hanging out there for the weekend. Hutton has a big crush on starlet Joan Leslie (played by herself) and he manages to get a kiss from her, and later wins a weekend of activities with her. Between plot points, we see musical numbers at the Canteen (with, among others, Roy Rogers and the Andrews Sisters). The funnest parts of the film, however, are when real-life stars act like normal, everyday folk. The best ones at projecting this "normal" air (which must have involved about as much acting as a typical fictional film role) are Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and John Garfield. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet have a cute bit of conversation and other stars like Alexis Smith, Eddie Cantor, and Paul Henried breeze through fairly quickly. It's mostly Warners stars; Bogart gets mentioned a couple of times, but he never shows up.

It's a little weird when Joan Leslie plays herself, but probaby somewhat fictionalized: she lives with her parents and sister and has to sneak Hutton out of the house late one evening. Although I have read that she really did live with her family, it still seems improbable for a starlet like her who had several years and movies under her belt to have to sneak around her parents with her boyfriends. Her real-life sister played herself, but her parents are played by actors (her father is Jonathan Hale, who played Mr. Dithers in the "Blondie" series). It's a bit too long (over two hours) and not all the numbers are compelling, but it was still fun to see Bette Davis try to act like a average, run-of-the-mill person. Among those in Hollywood at the time who oozed star quality, Bette must have been pretty near the top of the heap.

Saturday, November 24, 2001


William Powell plays a captured crook heading for execution at San Quentin. Kay Francis is a dying woman he meets in a bar in Hong Kong; they wind up together on a ship for San Francisco. The plot centers around their shipboard romance and how they try to keep their respective "terminal" conditions secret from each other. For a 1932 movie, it's quite modern in feel--lots of nice (but not grandiose) directorial touches, like some sweeping camera movements, especially the nice ones along a bar that open and close the movie. Considering there is only one plotline, the supporting cast really gets a chance to shine; Aline McMahon plays against somewhat type as a con artist traveling as a duchess, and Frank McHugh is another crook who pulls con jobs while acting perpetually drunk. They team up to help Powell outsmart the cop who has him under lock and key (Warren Hymer). The character of the cop is interesting--he eventually is seen in a fairly favorable light, despite his antagonism toward Powell.

The more I see of Wiliam Powell, the more impressed I am with him. Because he did a lot of light parts and is mostly known these days for the Thin Man movies, I think his reputation has suffered. He is a remarkably subtle actor, more so than many others in the early 30's, a transitional period as talkies wiped out silents and acting styles were in flux. His THIN MAN movies, though fun, don't do him justice. I think his best acting is in earlier films like this one and MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. The one thing lacking here is chemistry between Powell and Francis. Both were fine, although I giggled at Francis's first line ("I'm so sorry," with her infamous slurred R's), but the romantic heat that is necessary in order to buy some of the plot twists wasn't there. Part of the problem is that it was quite short (around 70 minutes) so their initial attraction happens without being fleshed out enough for us to understand it. Still, a wonderful film with a wonderful cast. I'm looking forward to seeing more Powell films.

Thursday, November 22, 2001


Will wonders never cease? A Nelson Eddy movie that I could watch all the way through! I'd like to be glib and say it's a musical version of DR. ZHIVAGO, but it isn't quite true. There's a lot of singing, mostly from Eddy and his leading lady, Ilona Massey, but most of it is in the setting of a nightclub or opera house. One major exception is a rousing opening number sung on horseback by Eddy and his fellow Cossacks. After an unsteady first minute or so, I was won over by the song and gave myself over to the movie wholeheartedly.

Eddy is a prince and Cossack who falls in love with a singer (and revolutionary) who feels contempt for the royalty, so he disguises himself as a poor music student. They fall in love, but then the war and the Revolution get in the way. There is a street massacre reminsicent of ZHIVAGO, but mostly things are kept on the light side. Charles Ruggles provides comic relief, and he acts and sounds a bit like Clifton Webb (although this was filmed several years before Webb's debut in talkies in LAURA). There is a touching Christmas scene where the Austrian and Russian armies sing "Silent Night" to each other, and the last 15 minutes are set in Paris at Russian New Year's after the Revolution where the royals have gone to live in exile, reduced to working as tailors and waiters. Of course, Eddy and Massey wind up together, although why they do and why it takes so long is never explained. Frank Morgan does nicely in a relatively small part that blossoms during the New Year's scene. Recommended, even if you don't usually like Eddy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001


Of the "action in the desert" movies of the time, this ranks between GUNGA DIN and FOUR FEATHERS for me. GUNGA DIN is a more exciting film--what action there is in GESTE consists primarily of soldiers firing guns from a fort at marauding Arabs on horseback, with no close-up brawling or fighting as in DIN. It's closer to the atmosphere of FOUR FEATHERS (family, loyalty, courage, respect) with a plotline concerning three brothers who enter the Foreign Legion to escape scandal. It's not really a spoiler to note that it's clear from early on that the brothers are not at the root of the scandal, the apparent theft of a precious jewel from their family home. In fact, the movie is more like a mystery. The jewel theft is the more traditional puzzle that eventually gets explained. The other mystery is what is behind the discovery at the beginning of the film of a desert fort "defended" by dozens of corpses standing in place along the parapet. (I got "parapet" from an online summary of the film, and I had to look it up to make sure I was using it correctly, because my only other acquaintance with the word is Mel Brooks' raunchy metaphor of "walking the parapet" in BLAZING SADDLES!). That opening scene is still powerfully creepy. The performances are fine, better than in FOUR FEATHERS, although Gary Cooper, playing Beau, isn't quite up to the whimsey and childlike aura that is supposed to be part of Beau's character. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. might have been a better choice. Ray Milland and Robert Preston are quite good as the other brothers, and Brian Donlevy practically steals the movie as the sadistic commander. A very young Susan Hayward is the love interest who, as in most movies of this type, vanishes early on and returns briefly at the end. An enjoyable movie, certainly equal to its strong reputation.

Sunday, November 18, 2001


This was the last of the Warners' GOLD DIGGERS series and it certainly feels rather tired (for some strange reason, this movie isn't even mentioned in Maltin's guide). The budget had obviously been cut back--Busby Berkeley is still around but he has less to work with, and there's only really one big number at the end instead of the usual three or four. Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell are gone and are missed. Powell and Keeler are not among my all-time favorite stars, but they did work well together in their 30's musicals. Instead, we have the second-string team of Rudy Vallee and Rosemary Lane. It's not that they are bad, but they don't stand out at all. In fact, Lane has been given almost nothing to do and her character is underwritten. Basically, she's a ballet dancer and she winds up with Vallee at the end.

The plot deviates from the other GOLD DIGGERS films. Due to a mix-up, Vallee takes a troupe of chorus girls to Paris for an international dance exposition. The French are expecting a ballet troupe, so Vallee hires a somewhat washed-up teacher (Fritz Feld) to teach his girls the right moves (oddly, when they finally do perform, there's not a ballet move in sight!). The plot relies on a couple different layers of mistaken identity and the comic relief from Allen Jenkins, Hugh Herbert, and Edward Brophy takes center stage for most of the movie. A standout is Melville Cooper, who I remember mostly from butler roles in 30's movies. Here, he plays the head of the Paris exposition and his relatively droll attitude contrasts well with the near-slapstick of the other three comics.

Given more screen time than Busby Berkeley's dancers is the Schnickelfritz Band, a sort of poor-man's Spike Jones. They are trotted out a few times to fairly entertaining effect. Physically, they remind me of the Marx Brothers as they race leeringly around the stage playing songs like "Listen to the Mockingbird" on unusual instruments. But when you remember these guys more vividly than a Berkeley production number, you know there's a problem with the movie. Not up to "Gold Digger" par, but still sort of fun.

Saturday, November 17, 2001


I was in a Chester Morris mood after PUBLIC HERO #1, so I dug this up. It's a nifty little B-movie, a comedy-thriller with Morris as a mystery novelist trying to crack the case of the Black Ace, a killer who leaves a black ace (duh!) as a calling card to announce his next murder. The next victim takes a ride in a private plane hoping to avoid the announced murder (at seven), but the killer strikes anyway. The rest of the movie takes place in a mansion as the various suspects circle each other warily. The limits of the budget are clear in the minimal sets involved, especially in the latter half. The mystery itself has lots of loopholes, but the atmosphere helps make up for the lack of coherence.

The comedy, in the form of Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh as a pair of bumbling cops, actually works. Maybe it's just that I've gotten used to these two, having seen them in a number of 30's B-movies recently. This made me think about the evolution of the movie mystery. It seems that in the 30's, most mysteries were largely comic in tone, or at least light--even as late as EYES IN THE NIGHT with Edward Arnold in 1942. At the very least, they almost always had comic relief characters. Even many of Universal's horror films (THE INVISIBLE MAN, the later MUMMY movies) had stretches of comedy. Other crime films, like prison or gangster films, were more serious in tone. Then, with the coming of film noir (THE MALTESE FALCON in 1941 is as good a place to start as any), the light mystery begins to disappear. Certainly some noirs have light moments (FALCON, THE DARK CORNER) but nothing is played for slapsticky laughs. Comedy pretty much vanished from the movie mystery until the Agatha Christie adaptations began in the 60's. Since I'm more used to serious mysteries, it was hard to get used to the comic elements of TOMORROW AT SEVEN. Ultimately, it was an enjoyable diversion.
PUBLIC HERO #1 (1935)

This movie felt like a combination of WHITE HEAT (without the Oedipal psychodrama and the masterful Cagney performance) and BRINGING UP BABY (without the dinosaur or the leopard). Chester Morris is a Fed planted in prison to help crack a murderous holdup gang, led by Joseph Calleia. They break out of prison and, while on the lam, run into Calleia's sister, Jean Arthur. Her interaction with Morris when they first meet is the stuff of screwball comedy--she's whimsically pushy and he's interested but preoccupied--but soon the tone turns back to crime melodrama. Lionel Barrymore is a drunken doctor who tends to the gang members when they return all shot up from their heists. Like Arthur, his performance is comic at first, then more melodramatic. Barrymore gets top billing, which I assume must have been some kind of contractual perk since his is definitely a supporting role. He also seems to be running on half-speed, which for some is perhaps preferable to his full speed (though I tend to find Lionel Barrymore a definite plus in any film).

I think I'm growing fond of Chester Morris. I've only seen him in a handful of movies, but he does the cocky and/or stoic part well. He's also sort of good looking, if you like the broken-nose, square-jaw look of the comic book hero. I know his biggest fame was as Boston Blackie, but I've never seen one of those movies. As far as acting chops, he can't really keep up with Arthur or Barrymore, but in his scenes in the prison early in the movie, where he's not competing with them, he's pretty good. Arthur is, as always, very good and fun to watch. Not a classic, but certainly worth catching if for nothing else for its odd mix of screwball romance and prison-escape melodrama.

Friday, November 16, 2001

If you're reading this, I'm taking for granted that you love old movies like I do. Some of my favorite movies of all time are generally acknowledged classics like CASABLANCA, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. It's fairly easy to find reviews and information about those kinds of treasured favorites. But most of the movies I'll be writing about here are ones that may not have reached the status of "classic": B-movies, for example, or the earlier films of big stars--much as I love Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE, I'll be more likely to review a less well-known Davis movie like FRONT PAGE WOMAN or FOG OVER FRISCO. I feel lucky to be living in a time when such movies are accessible through video tape and cable (especially the wonderful Turner Classic Movies). So join me as I get up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and watch a late, late show. On a good night, I'll discover some "lost" gem; even on a bad night, I'll usually find something about the movie to enjoy--a juicy performance by a supporting actor, a clever quip, or even an interesting camera angle. Eventually, I'll post my e-mail address and I hope you'll share your own observations about these films with me.