Monday, December 31, 2001

2001: My Year of B Movies

This was the year I discovered the pleasures of B movies, mostly due to Turner Classic Movies showing a number of Warner Brothers B's, many featuring people like Ann Sheridan, Eleanor Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and Jane Wyman before they became stars. I am in the middle of reading a wonderful book by Don Miller called B MOVIES. It's basically a chronological history of B films from the early 30's to the end of WWII, which Miller considers the heyday of those movies. Miller defines B films as ones that were made cheaply, mostly intended to be second features. They usually run from about an hour to 75 minutes, and certainly never longer than 90. Many were produced by small studios like Monogram or by independent producers, but all the big studios had B movie units.

They were made by second-string casts and second-string crew. The lead actors were either on their way up (Bogart, Wyman, Rita Hayworth) or on the way down (Bela Lugosi). Some actors, like Chester Morris, Boris Karloff, and John Carradine, bounced back and forth, often starring in B movies while taking supporting parts in A movies. The vast majority of films that Miller examines are ones that casual fans will probably never be able to see, as many are lost or just neglected. If it weren't for TCM, I'm sure I would have seen almost none of the films he discusses. Many series movies, like Maisie, Bulldog Drummond, Nancy Drew, Boston Blackie, and Charlie Chan, were B movies. Most of the Universal horror movies of the 40's were B, unlike the higher-budgeted ones in the 30's. Miller considers all of the Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes movies after the first two to be B pictures; HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES were made by Fox as A films, but the rest were made by Universal on tighter budgets and with shorter running times, and they saved money by being set in the present.

I'm sure that, to many young movie fans today, any movie in black and white that didn't win an Oscar seems like a B movie. The AIP beach and monster movies of the 60's are the B movies of my past, although many played as first features. EASY RIDER may be the biggest B movie ever made, in terms of gross and influence. Today, most of the movies that go directly to cable or tape could be considered B movies--I just saw one called CHERRY FALLS, a dumb slasher movie with Jay Mohr that unaccountably got a rave review in Variety last year.

Among my favorite B's, most of which I saw for the first time this year, are:

WHITE ZOMBIE (Lugosi right after DRACULA; very static direction and acting, but also very atmospheric)
MOONLIGHT MURDER (1936--a dumb little mystery with a nifty gimmick where singers are killed by lethal gas emitted from a microphone)
SPY SHIP (1942--a remake of FOG OVER FRISCO)
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (a "social problem" movie from the early 30's about how delinquent runaways get the way they do)
TOMORROW AT SEVEN (1933--Chester Morris mystery)
EYES IN THE NIGHT (Edward Arnold as a blind detective, with Donna Reed in a supporting part)
DOWN IN SAN DIEGO (1941--an early Dan Dailey movie, though he has a supporting part, with the leads being juveniles Ray McDonald and Bonita Granville chasing, what else, Nazis)
THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR (1942, with Eleanor Parker and John Loder, about Nazis and ghosts in a small English village)
STRANGE ILLUSION (Edgar G. Ulmer's ultra-low budget version of "Hamlet")

Also many of the Val Lewtons, especially CAT PEOPLE and SEVENTH VICTIM; some of the Charlie Chans and Boris Karloff's MR. WONG movies, lower in budget than the Chans, but atmospheric, and benefitting from Karloff's performance

Sunday, December 30, 2001


Warning: Spoilers Below!
A late example of the Warner Brothers social issue film of the 30's, based loosely on a real case. In a Southern town (on Southern Memorial Day), a young business school student (Lana Turner) is murdered (and almost certainly raped, although that's not explicitly stated) and a Yankee teacher is accused of the crime. The movie begins well, but ultimately none of the characters is strongly rounded out so aside from a vague unease about prejudice and ruthless ambition, we don't take much away from the film because we don't really care much about the characters. The case against the teacher isn't exactly airtight and the circumstances of the crime remain vague. At the end, after the teacher is found guilty through circumstantial evidence, his death sentence is commuted by the governor to life in prison; this outrages the dead girl's family who take him off a train and lynch him. We never find out who actually killed the girl.

Claude Rains, as the ambitious DA who uses the case as a springboard to statewide and national prominence, provides a center for the film, but we don't get a sense of what he's like as a person-he's mostly just a cardboard villain. The accused is well played by Edward Norris (who in real life was married to Ann Sheridan at the time). Elisha Cook Jr. has one of his more substantial roles as the dead girl's boyfriend, who is briefly considered a suspect, although we are given no motive. A black janitor is also a suspect, but it seems clear given what little we see at the time of the murder that he didn't commit it, even though we see him reading a racy magazine! I thought the soda jerk, who is obviously flirting unsuccessfully with Turner in an early scene, might have done it but we never see him again. Allyn Joslyn plays a slimy reporter who functions a bit like an anti-Greek chorus, whipping up the "prejudice" angle of North vs. South, and if anyone is the true villain here, it seems to be the press.

Thursday, December 27, 2001


A fluffy B-comedy in which rich families in an exclusive community discover that a family maid has written a book, apparently a scandalous expose, and all the families are nervous about who it is and what will be exposed. There's really no suspense about who it is, although the opening minutes, with various families guessing, is the best scene in the movie. Marsha Hunt (with whom I was totally unfamiliar) and Richard Carlson are the leads, and, though I have nothing against either one, it winds up being the supporting cast that really keeps the movie going: Marjorie Main, Spring Byington, Virginia Weidler, Margaret Hamilton, Allyn Joslyn, and Barry Nelson are all lots of fun. I like Carlson, but leads aren't really his forte; I like him best when he's part of the supporting cast in movies like THE LITTLE FOXES, THE GHOST BREAKERS, & WHITE CARGO.

Like many B-films, the plot has ambitions that can't be carried out in the short length or with the cheap budget, although the film's sets look fine. There is too much plot crammed into its 66 minute running time, so the backgrounds of its lead characters, important to the plot, are not fully explored. Still, it's worth watching on a lazy winter afternoon. And my favorite part of the film: the Allyn Joslyn character hides his actual identity behind a wonderful false name, Lafcadio Wooflecooler.

Tuesday, December 25, 2001


I've never read the book; my only knowledge of the material comes from seeing the 90's remake with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. I'd always heard good things about this version, and as a Katharine Hepburn fan, I knew I'd have to see this someday, so TCM's Christmas Eve showing was a must for me. Unfortunately, I was let down. Part of it may have been the tinny soundtrack, which made the frequent shrieking of the March girls almost unbearable. Sadly, part of it is also Hepburn's performance. She seems too old for the part, and she overacts every chance she gets. Granted, the part calls for some larger-than-life presence now and then, but Hepburn never seems to settle into the part. Even the much touted scenes involving the sickly Beth didn't touch me. The episodic plot, set during and after the Civil War, involves a few years in the lives of the March girls (Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, and Frances Dee) as they find their separate identities, fall in love, dabble in careers, etc. People get sick, people die, people get married. The first 15 minutes are set at Christmas and that is probably the best part of the movie. Spring Byington is good as their mother and Edna May Oliver solidified her screen persona as the crusty old aunt. Paul Lukas is quite good in the small part of the German professor who falls for Hepburn--they don't make a likely match, but his performance is one of the more modulated and subtle ones in the film. Even though the 40's version with June Allyson doesn't seem well regarded these days, it couldn't be much drabber than this one.

Monday, December 24, 2001


Neither of these are "classic movies," I suppose, but this is what I watched on the eve of Christmas Eve and they're quite appropriate for the season. The first is a 1954 television production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL with Fredric March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone as Marley's ghost. It begins well, but becomes awful. For starters, March is lukewarm as Scrooge, especially in the last stretch. His transformation scene, which is usually a good chunk of material for an actor to chew on, is very weak, at least partly due to the writing--it was shortened quite a bit from the original story and from alternate movie versions. But the worst part was the music. It wasn't exactly a musical, but there were several songs sung, sometimes by carolers, and they were all shrill and repetitious. Given that Bernard Herrmann wrote the music and Maxwell Anderson wrote the lyrics and adaptation, I was surprised at how shabby the material was. I missed hearing more traditional carols in the background, as most filmed versions of the Scrooge story have. During the last song, sung by Tiny Tim at Christmas dinner, the camera stays on March's face and he has the unpleasant chore of staring straight ahead, changing emotions every 20 seconds or so, from sad to thoughtful to cheery, and back to sad, I think! It's a downright laughable way to end the show. Rathbone was better in his fairly small role as Marley, but not enough to salvage the show for me.

I had a better TV-watching experience with THE SONS OF MISTLETOE, a new made-for-TV holday film. The plot is corny and predictable--George Newbern (who I remember as the guy who likes his sister a little too much on "Friends") plays a likeable mild-mannered guy who runs an orphanage in the small town of Mistletoe. Roma Downey plays the daughter of a recently deceased department store owner; she has returned to town to sell off the family properties, which includes the orphanage. Can Newbern get Downey to resume her father's generous patronage of the orphanage? The orphan kids are cute, and of course, there's one troublemaker (well played by Scott Terra) who winds up redeemed on Christmas day. Downey's character is not exactly a Scrooge, which is a plus, but she plays the part so woodenly, it's difficult to know what the character's thoughts and motivations are at any given moment. Newbern is much better and is the movie's saving grace. Doris Roberts is her usual self as the town's sheriff (she looks like an older version of Frances McDormand in FARGO, but has none of the quirky charm of that character). For a TV-movie at this time of year when all TV movies are sappy and predictable, this one was better than average.

Sunday, December 23, 2001


My questionable Christmas gift to myself was finding time in these last few days before the climax to the Christmas season to watch this bad movie. The last time I saw it, I must have been 10 or 11 and I liked it, largely for its fantasy elements. Also, I was a fan of horror movies and, even though it cannot remotely be called a horror movie (though some might call it horrible), both Vincent Price and Peter Lorre were in it. My re-watching was fairly pleasurable.

A heavenly tribunal is called to decide whether mankind should be allowed to blow itself up with the Super H Bomb. Cedric Hardwicke is the judge, Vincent Price is the Devil, arguing for letting mankind self-destruct, and Ronald Colman (in his last film role) is the rathter ambigious Spirit of Mankind, arguing blandly for saving man. We are then given a speedy history of mankind, accenting the very good and the very bad. (Oddly, Christ is conspicuous by his absence, although it may be that the Spirit of Mankind is supposed to be a Christ figure). The immediate problem is that the bad would obviously tend to be showier--would you rather see Nero fiddling during an orgy or Isaac Newton get hit on the head by an apple? Luckily, Newton is played by Harpo Marx, so that scene is actually more enjoyable than seeing an aging and dispirited Peter Lorre put no energy into his brief scene as Nero.

The only reason to watch this movie is to see the stars (mostly second-rank) go through their cameo paces. The film is mostly a series of cheaply shot historical tableaux connected by tons of stock footage crowd scenes from movies about ancient Egypt or medieval Europe. I had the most fun with Cesar Romero (as The Spanish Envoy) meeting Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth--as a child of the 60's, I immediately thought of The Joker and Endora, although Romero displays no personality, leaving it up to Moorehead to supply the overacting fun in the scene. I kept thinking Queen Elizabeth would whip her hands around in the air and make the Spanish Envoy vanish! Groucho Marx is fun as Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island and Marie Wilson had a very short fun moment as Marie Antoinette. Hedy Lamarr is embarrassing as Joan of Arc and Virginia Mayo is almost as bad as Cleopatra. A few folks, like Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, and Chico Marx, have almost no lines. Charles Coburn and Reginald Gardiner take their brief parts (as Hippocates and Shakespeare) fairly seriously. I must say that ultimately, the Devil gives the best account of mankind, and Price is really quite good; his usual hint of hamminess works well here. Not exactly a movie to search out, unless you like bad movies. I had a fairly good time and don't feel too bad about it this morning.

Friday, December 21, 2001


One of the more notorious collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg. I like Dietrich, but I haven't seen many of her Sternberg films, so I can't really judge this one by that criterion. Dietrich plays an actress/chorus girl who settles down with a chemist and has a kid, leaving her career behind. The husband gets radium poisoning and, against his protests, she returns to nightclub work (in the infamous "Hot Voodoo" number which she sings in a gorilla suit) to get money to pay for hubby's medical treatments. She takes up with a millionaire playboy to get more money more quickly, but hubby finds out and threatens to have the kid taken away from her. She hits the road with the kid and things get even weirder.

This had potential, and Dietrich is great, especially in her musical numbers, but Herbert Marshall just about sinks the picture as the husband. In the right role, I like Marshall (THE RAZOR'S EDGE, THE LITTLE FOXES), but he's not right for this. I can't believe that the glamourous, young, vibrant Dietrich would ever settle down with Marshall unless it was for his money, and he doesn't have any here. Dietrich is surprisingly good in her domestic scenes with the kid (Dickie Moore). Cary Grant is the playboy--he's at his youngest and sexiest here. I won't give any other plot points away except to say that the career/family dichotomy plays out quite traditionally in this movie. This has a camp reputation, but except for her song in the gorilla suit, and a later one which she sings in a glittering white tux, I'm not sure why. If anything, instead of exaggeration, everyone pretty much underplays here, which is a problem given the somewhat bizarre material that cries out for over-the-top treatment. Sidney Toler ("Charlie Chan") is a detective and Sterling Holloway has a couple of lines of dialogue early on. There's also a lushly shot skinny-dipping scene under the opening credits I'm looking forward to some better Dietrich/von Sternberg films in TCM in January.

Wednesday, December 19, 2001

LOVE CRAZY (1941); Or, Me and Screwball Comedy

When I first discovered the wonderful world of old movies, back in my college days, screwball comedies were among my favorites; BRINGING UP BABY, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, HIS GIRL FIRDAY, and MY MAN GODFREY were all films I saw and loved early in my classic-movie education. Therefore, I assumed I was a screwball comedy fan. But as time went on, I found myself growing immune to the the charms of such films. My theory is that comedy is a delicate balance to begin with, and when you throw in the volatile elements usually found in screwball comedy (zany rich people, irritated and obnoxious lovers, stupid mistakes that in real life could be resolved in two minutes, etc.), it becomes difficult to get all the ingredients to come together just right. When they do, it's sparkling and hilarious and lighter than air--THE AWFUL TRUTH may be the single best example. When they don't, the movie collapses into shrill shrieking and buffonish battling and I just want to go lie down in a dark room for an hour or so. As much as I love William Powell and Myrna Loy in most of their movies together (the THIN MAN series, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, etc.), they don't quite save this movie from screwball hell.

Powell and Loy are celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary when a visit by Loy's mother starts a chain of mishaps that results in Loy seeking a divorce and Powell acting insane in order to postpone the divorce proceedings. The supporting cast (led by Jack Carson, Gail Patrick, and Florence Bates) either isn't very strong or isn't given enough to do. One of the few highlights of the movie is the scene where are Loy barges into Carson's apartment, thinking he is someone else, and starts making out with him to make Powell jealous; Carson has no idea what's going on, but quickly plays along. Another good scene is at the climax when Powell dresses in drag as his sister to avoid capture by the cops and the insane asylum folks. Unlike many other actors who resort to this, he could seriously pass as a studious old lady! The first 15 or 20 minutes work well, largely due to the Powell/Loy chemistry, but I found this tough to stick with, although I did.

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

ALIBI (1929)

Caution: Spoilers follow!
As a Chester Morris fan, I was happy to be able to see this very early taklie. Roland West, who directed THE BAT WHISPERS, did this nifty little gangster film. Some critics have said it contains elements of German Expressionism, but I think that's probably going too far. The sets do incorporate a lot of art-deco geometric shapes, but the kind of atmosphere I associate with CALIGARI is only really present here at the very beginning and the very end.

Chester Morris plays a suave gangster who gets out of jail, claims to be going straight, and hooks up with a policeman's daughter (Mae Busch). The cops, especially Pat O'Malley, who is sweet on Mae himself, suspect that Morris is involved in the murder of a policeman, but he has what seems to be an airtight alibi--he was with Mae and another couple at a theater at the time of the murder. We get strung along for a while, but eventually we find out that he is indeed guilty of the murder. The rest of the movie is Morris trying to avoid suspicion, and then capture. Regis Toomey plays a drunken stockbroker who turns out to be working undercover for the cops. His drunk act is just that, but nonetheless, it quickly gets irritating. There is no background music (except some bizarre out-of-nowhere hymm during a protracted death scene) but there are some flashy musical numbers: one with high-kicking dancing girls on stage, and one in a nightclub with a girl holding a hand mirror at crotch level, shining light onto Toomey's face.

Much of the film, especially when it involves dialogue, is as static and stagy as other films of the time, but a few setpieces at the beginning and end involve some nice camerawork, including a memorable shot of a character leaping from one tall building to the next, but missing and falling to his death. Morris is good (he was nominated for an Academy Award, as was the movie); his best scene is when he turns desperately yellow when he thinks he's trapped. His angular nose and jaw fit in nicely with the art-deco set design! Mae Busch is not very good at all; she slows down everyscene she's in. Parts of it are quite slow moving; I wondered what Warner Brothers would have done with it a few years later. It certainly would be shorter and much more quickly paced, but they also would probably have replaced Morris with Cagney.

Monday, December 17, 2001


This movie can't seem to make up its mind whether it's an overheated Southern melodrama with liberal doses of sex appeal or a stodgy story about the problems between labor and management on plantations. Bette Davis does her darndest to keep the sex quotient high, but Richard Barthelmess (with some help from an undistinguished screenplay) keeps dragging it back to earth.

Marvin (Barthelmess) is the son of a dirt-poor sharecropper who wants to better himself through education. For his own reasons, the rich landowner takes Barthelmess in, educates him, and gives him a job. For most of the movie, Marvin is torn between the farmers and the owners. Both sides resort to immoral or illegal acts to get what they think is owed to them and Marvin winds up being the quasi-Marxist voice of reason who tries to reconcile the tenant farmers and the land owners. Marvin is also torn between two women: Dorothy Jordan as the poor girl and Bette Davis as the rich daughter of the land owner.

Davis is great, oozing a casual sex appeal throughout. Barthelmess, who was at the tail end of his career, is wooden; his reaction to being seduced on a lazy Sunday afternoon by a nearly-naked Davis is about the same as his reaction to his father's death: he looks like a deer caught in headlights. To be fair, Barthelmess was way too old for the part--he was almost 40, playing a lad in his early 20's--but he is the biggest problem with the film. Jordan (who would, in 1933, marry Merian Cooper, the co-director of King Kong) is awfully drab and passive. In the end, it's unclear who Barthelmess will pair up with; I'm sure we're supposed to assume the poor girl will win his love, but I was left hoping that Davis would rope him in. The plantation and farm sets are nicely atmospheric. Overall, definitely worth watching, especially if you're a Bette Davis fan.

Saturday, December 15, 2001


Odd comedy-drama with Cary Grant as a reporter in Europe in 1938 as Hitler is getting serious about taking over Europe. He falls for Ginger Rogers, an ex-burlesque queen who is passing as a cultured lady, married to a man (Walter Slezak) who turns out to be a high-ranking Nazi. She becomes a spy for the US. It reminded me a bit of a comic variation on NOTORIOUS with Rogers as Bergman and Slezak as Rains. The movie goes grim a couple of times, most notably when Grant and Rogers are mistaken for Jews and are herded into a miserable group bound for a concentration camp. The scene, with a mournful Jewish song playing in the background, is short, and certainly the filmmakers probably didn't realize the full horror of what was happening to the Jews being rounded up, but it remains a strange scene, all the more disturbing for having a fast, happy ending for Grant and Rogers, who get out quickly. I haven't seen Walter Slezak in many films, but he was very good in this one, showing himself to be a subtle actor. Albert Dekker is also good in a fairly small part as the man who recruits Rogers for the spying mission. Rogers spends much of the first hour doing something close to a Katharine Hepburn imitation--she's faking a high-class Philadelphia background--and it's a relief when she reverts to her normal voice.

I'd recommend it, but at 2 hours, it does wear out its welcome. The ending on a US-bound ship, as the filmmakers obviously do contortions trying to make sure that the bad guy gets his just desserts but that the good guys don't do anything too immoral, must be seen to be believed! Leo McCarey, who handled Grant to much stronger effect in THE AWFUL TRUTH, directed. Grant and Rogers have quite a bit of chemistry in the earlier scenes, and Grant seems as relaxed as I've ever seen him.

Friday, December 14, 2001


A strange, compelling, though sometimes ridiculous pre-Code melodrama. Regis Toomey, who for most of his career was relegated to supporting roles, stars as a peppy, handsome, reliable railroad worker. Mary Astor, sexy yet sweet, is his wife, always at work in the kitchen or garden. Into their happy life comes Grant Withers, a rough & tumble co-worker of Toomey's. Withers ends up living with the couple and, rather suddenly, comes on to Astor. Toomey finds out and when they fight, Toomey winds up blinded. Later, during a flood, Withers tries to play hero getting a train over a wrecked bridge, but the blind Toomey (in a memorable scene) risks his life instead. There's humor and pathos and a surprisingly sexy spark here and there. Joan Blondell is sassy as a waitress and Jimmy Cagney has a small part that he plays with much energy. The plot has a few interesting twists; no one seems to be at fault for the way things work out--before the fateful fight, Withers was planning on leaving rather than keep tempting fate by being close to Astor. No one seems quite noble enough for this to be elevated to the status of tragedy, but it is an interesting and memorable movie, and a great example of the kind of tough little movie that Warner Brothers specialized in back then.

Thursday, December 13, 2001


Andy Hardy meets the Joad family. Not quite, I guess, but close. Anne Baxter is a young woman named Tessa who lives with her younger sister and brothers and her grandfather on an old houseboat in Florida during WWII. Their financial status is somewhere between the Hardys and the Joads; they struggle constantly to make ends meet. The grandfather (Charles Winninger in a old-sea-salt beard) thinks that Tessa's best bet is to marry a boring man she likes but doesn't love, but that will break up the family. Tessa decides to go through with it and plans one last event for everyone: hosting a Sunday dinner for a soldier from a nearby base. A series of domestic complications ensue, mostly comic, and some involving Anne Revere, playing a friendly woman who is alternately flirting and sparring with Winninger (for unexplained reasons, everyone calls him Grandfeather). Although we sometimes see her as needlessly snippy, ultimately she plays the role of a kind of guardian angel to the family.

Baxter is very good as the young woman who has been thrust into the role of mother to her siblings. She is robust and sexy but still has the feel of a person who will soon be worn down by life. The houseboat and surrounding area is obviously a studio set, but it's atmospheric enough, especially during a scene involving a big storm. The soldier is John Hodiak, an odd-looking man--his features are almost too exaggerated to really be called handsome, but he does charm Tessa (of course) and the kids, and eventually Grandfeather. The ending is predictable homefront propaganda. Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in GRAPES OF WRATH) plays a USO worker and Chill Wills plays a carbon copy of his part as the delivery man in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, with slightly more importance to the plot. One of the kids is Bobby Driscoll, later a Disney star who drifted into drug addiction and died alone in an abandoned buidling in NYC at the age of 31.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001


Definitely not to be confused with the horror classic from the 30's with Karloff and Lugosi, this B-movie is worth seeing but is certainly nothing like its earlier namesake. Despite the title and the presence of Lugosi (in one of his red herring roles), and a silly, last-minute attempt to tie the plot to the Poe story, this isn't a horror movie, but a more traditional "gathering to read the will in a spooky old house" mystery. It was OK but had too much comic relief from the stuttering, giggling Hugh Herbert--I can usually take a fair amount of Herbert, but he got on my nerves in this one. Broderick Crawford, looking quite young and several pounds lighter than in his later years, is the hero (and the comic relief partner of Herbert), and he even manages to get the girl--in the trailer, he is billed as "Brod Crawford." It's more worth watching for a couple members of the supporting cast: Gale Sondergaard (looking a lot like Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers) and one of my favorite overlooked actresses, Gladys Cooper, looking quite young and playing very much against type. Alan Ladd has a small part and Basil Rathbone adds some atmosphere to a movie that sorely needs more spookiness to balance out the abundant comic relief.

Tuesday, December 11, 2001


This movie kept threatening to remind me of better movies like LOST HORIZON, THE HUMAN COMEDY, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and PETER IBBETSON, but ultimately it's a rather boring story of a man's life, told in flashback as he (Van Johnson) is waiting to be rescured from a downed plane in the South Pacific. The fantasy element that keeps cropping up throughout involves a mythical island called High Barbaree that Johnson heard about as a child from his uncle, Thomas Mitchell. It stands in for both a utopia and for the afterlife, but ultimately has little to do with the movie. The early scenes of Johnson growing up, having adventures with his best friend, a girl (who grows up into June Allyson), are the best and are vaguely remeniscent of HUMAN COMEDY, a sappy movie that I love. The soulmate element from PETER IBBETSON appears when Allyson tracks down Johnson as an adult and tries to get his life back on track--even though he actually appears to be doing fine without her. One interesting tidbit is that a brief storm scene uses the tornado footage from WIZARD OF OZ. Despite some early going, not a movie to go out of your way to see unless you're a big fan of Johnson or Allyson.

Monday, December 10, 2001


Another odd little rarity. The print I saw was called FORBIDDEN ADVENTURE, and I couldn't find it listed in any of my reference books. However, there is an entry for it under NEWLY RICH on IMDB, although the information about it there is minimal. But I like running across old movies that I can't find in the reference books, and I figured with Edna May Oliver, it was probably worth watching once. While it's no buried treasure, it was surprisingly pleasant. It seems appropriate that it has two different titles, since it plays out like two different movies. In the first part, Edna May Oliver plays a widowed owner of a gas station somewhere out in the sticks who, jealous of the success of an old friend's child in Hollywood, takes her daughter out West to break into pictures. This part of the movie fits the NEWLY RICH title. Once the child (Mitzi Green) is established, the movie switches gears and becomes an adventure as the two child stars and the boy king of a small European country (they meet him while doing publicity in London) escape their guardians and tramp about London, joining a gang of urchins and getting kidnapped--sort of a PRINCE AND THE PAUPER meets OLIVER TWIST storyline. There is some mild parody of Hollywood (the child stars are named Tiny Tim Tiffany--formerly Mickey Monahan--and Declicia Tait), and Edna May is indeed at her strident best, but I've never seen her in a movie where she hasn't been wonderful. This was probably intended as a kid's movie in its day, although I still think the two halves don't fit together as tightly as they could. It's based on a Sinclair Lewis story called "Let's Play King."

Sunday, December 09, 2001


I had quite a heated debate with a dear friend a while back about what constitutes a Christmas movie. Obviously, it has to take place at Christmas, but I think there's more to it than that. I think there has to be some element of fantasy (ghosts or angels or magic or Santa) and life-changing redemption (spiritual or otherwise). The movie we were arguing about was WHITE CHRISTMAS, and for me, that just doesn't quite cut it as a Christmas movie--there's nothing fantastic and no redemption (yes, there's snow on Christmas Day and Dean Jagger's resort is saved, but no one really has their life or outlook on life changed). Plus, I'm just not crazy about the movie, although it is pretty to look at. To be consistent, I guess I have to declare HOLIDAY INN ineligible as well, even though it has perhaps *the* classic Hollywood Christmas scene: Bing singing "White Christmas." Actually, I could include it because the Crosby character does have a life-changing epiphany about the woman he loves. At any rate, my favorite Christmas movies are:

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE--I can watch this year after year, even in the dead of summer, and still enjoy it and get teary at the end. Some people think it's too sappy, and others think it's too depressing (they see the somewhat subliminal message of the film as being that it's OK to give up on your dreams) but I think it's a great mix of the two moods. It is definitely a film with dark edges, with financial failures, death, attempted suicide, and the granddaddy of all dysfunctional-family scenes (George Bailey's outburst in the bosom of his family on Christmas Eve). Not to mention that Mr. Potter basically remains unvanquished at the end. But it also has heart-warming scenes of friendship and devotion, and its message about the difference that one person can make overrides any worries about giving up on dreams--after all, George's dream of saving his father's business does come true.

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET--Even though most everything in this film can be explained away rationally, the spark of whimsical fantasy remains strongly felt throughout. I like the fact that Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle can be goaded into mild violence against a twitchy-eyed bureaucrat. Like everyone else, I love the scene with the little Dutch girl and the mounds of mail on the judge's desk (and Gene Lockhart is great as the judge), but perhaps my favorite scene is with Shellhammer's tipsy wife on the phone, tickled to have Santa as a house guest.

THE BISHOP'S WIFE--Cary Grant is an angel who comes to earth in answer to the desperate prayers of a bishop (David Niven) who is trying to raise money to build a grand cathedral. But Grant discovers that Niven's biggest problem is the shaky state of his marriage to Loretta Young; a lovely but platonic romance develops between Young and Grant, and all is resolved on Christmas Eve. This is perhaps the best-acted Christmas movie, with all three stars absolutely inhabiting their roles wonderfully, supported ably by James Gleason as a cab driver, Gladys Cooper as a Scooge-like woman, and especially Monty Woolley as one of the few real atheists in any Hollywood film--even his assumed conversion at the end is left up in the air. The black & white photography by Gregg Toland (CITIZEN KANE) is stately, rich, and dark, without adding an undue darkness of tone to the proceedings.

I also like many of the CHRISTMAS CAROLS out there, especially the Alaister Sim version, which I think is the darkest, both in mood and look, and the George C. Scott version done for TV. MGM's 1938 film, with Reginald Owen is short and sweet (and Gene Lockhart is the cheeriest Cratchit ever!), and I have a fondness for AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL with Henry Winkler, though it's rather drab looking.

I remember liking THE HOLLY AND THE IVY, a British dysfunctional family movie from the 50's, but it's been almost 20 years since I've seen it--it never crops on on cable or tape. REMEMBER THE NIGHT, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as a mismatched thief and lawyer who fall in love over the Christmas holidays, is a nice, warm movie with good supporting performances by Beulah Bondi (George Bailey's mother) and Sterling Holloway. A CHRISTMAS STORY is the best Christmas comedy and A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is still the best TV special. Two movies that I love are set at Christmas but don't really fit the bill as far as fantasy or redemption: THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. HOLIDAY INN and THE LEMON DROP KID, although barely qualifying as Christmas movies, are ones that I usually dig out every December. Two non-Christmas films with great Christmas scenes are A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. And the less said about SCROOGED, the better!

Friday, December 07, 2001


This was one of D. W. Griffith's last movies, and according to the reference books, his most successful talkie. It was a tedious affair, presented more like a string of historical tableaux from Lincoln's life, with no strong connecting thread. In terms of presentation, it reminded me of a high school play/pageant. Famous characters were introduced with dialogue like, "Oh, Mary Todd, come here," or "Why that's John Wilkes Booth, the actor!" Although there was occasionally some inventive camerawork (the opening shot reminded me of the opening of Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES, with its moving camera and miniature sets), most of the dialogue scenes were quite static and either underacted or overacted.

Walter Huston was actually quite good as Lincoln; he gave the part some earthiness and vigor, something I recall being missing from Raymond Massey's more famous portrayal. His best scene was when he pardons a soldier who has been sentenced to death for cowardice. Una Merkel has a small part as Ann Rutledge, Lincoln's first love--she has two brief scenes before she dies. Of historical significance is the fact that Jason Robards Sr. has a small part (one scene, a couple of lines). Otherwise, I think you can skip this one. The print I saw was terrible--murky, with lots of cuts and lots of noise. It was probably a public domain print, although I believe a restored version has been released on tape and laserdisc.

Thursday, December 06, 2001

FOG OVER FRISCO (1934) & SPY SHIP (1942)

Warning: Spoliers below!
FOG is a fast-moving crime thriller with Bette Davis in an early featured role; SPY is a remake, recrafted as a fast-moving WWII spy thriller. Neither is particularly well known, but both are interesting and worth watching. In FOG, Bette Davis plays a reckless heiress who is part of a securities-selling racket, endangering her sister, her father, and her not-so-innocent boyfriend. Things get tight; Davis disappears and her sister gets kidnapped. A reporter (who is taken with the sister) helps justice prevail. The director uses lots of flashy scene transitions, like optical wipes and dissolves, to make an already fast-paced film seem even zippier. Some people have likened the film's structure to PSYCHO, since Davis (like Janet Leigh) vanishes fairly early in the story, but otherwise, nothing here is very Hitchcockian. Lyle Talbot is Davis' boyfriend, Hugh Herbert provides his usual antics for comic relief, and Alan Hale has a small supporting part.

SPY SHIP is the B-movie remake. Despite its small budget and lack of big-name actors, it's as good if not better than the original. Instead of securities, the bad guys are selling military secrets to the Japanese at the beginning of WWII. This change gives the movie a little moral heft and darkens some of the characters' motivations. Irene Manning (in the Davis role) is a radio commentator who is in the spy ring with her boyfriend. As in the original, the sister and a reporter get involved. The only real name actor in the movie is Craig Stevens as the reporter. Both movies are under 70 minutes; the remake is barely an hour and seems to move even faster than FOG. Both are enjoyable time-passers and are especially fun seen back-to-back.

Wednesday, December 05, 2001


This seems to be something of a rarity; I'd certainly never heard of it before, although apparently the story has been adapted for the movies at least twice. It's a creaky mystery/thriller from very early in the sound era, directed by Tod Browning. Like most 1929 movies I've seen, the camerawork style is practically nonexistent; the camera stays in one place and the actors mill about in front of it. In one especially unintentionally funny scene, a roomful of people are all standing around stock still and deadly quiet, for several seconds. Someone off-camera must give the "action" sign and suddenly everyone is chattering and running around. Why Browning didn't just trim the first few seconds of the scene is beyond me.

Despite the creakiness and the underdeveloped plot and characters, the movie was kinda fun. It involves murder, two seances, and Bela Lugosi in a pre-Dracula role. I had heard that Lugosi's hamminess grew out of his post-Dracula roles, but he still overacts outrageously here. Of course, so do a few other folks. The best acting is from Margaret Wycherly as the medium (she's probably best known for playing James Cagney's mother in WHITE HEAT many years later). The second seance, with a dead body in the circle, actually does achieve some genuine creepiness. Not a real classic by any means, but it'll do for a Midnight snack movie.

Tuesday, December 04, 2001


This is a real oddity--a B-movie film noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (THE BLACK CAT, DETOUR) using HAMLET as its inspiration, with layers of Freudian subtext (some on the surface, some not). Produced by PRC, it's certainly one of the most interesting Poverty Row studio movies I've ever seen, and I enjoyed it more than the well-regarded DETOUR, though it's not as exciting and off-the-wall as that movie. James Lydon, who played Henry Aldrich in the 40's and went on to appear in LIFE WITH FATHER a couple years later, plays the Hamlet character, a college student whose father, a judge, dies under suspicious circumstances in a car accident. If you know HAMLET, you know what's next--his mother is romanced by a slick and somewhat mysterious fellow (Warren William) and the son, egged on by a possibly supernatural event (in this case, a dream), suspects that William is responsible for his father's death and is up to no good now. The film even incorporates Hamlet's feigned insanity. There are friends and a girlfriend, though they don't really resemble any specific characters from Shakespeare. For a B-movie, it looks pretty good with some atmospheric camerawork helping to balance out the cheap-looking sets, although the acting leaves something to be desired, especially on Lydon's part. William, however, is very good, and amazingly he barely looks a day older than he did in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. But then he always looked older than his years. One of my favorite unsung supporting actors, Regis Toomey, has a fairly substantial role as an avuncular friend of Lydon's.

Monday, December 03, 2001


I watched these two early talkies, both starring Norma Shearer, in one sitting. They are very similar in style, content, and performances. Both are based on plays and the staginess of the material shows. Both are set among the upper class, and the acting style is exaggerated, artifical, and full of stereotyped mannerisms. Still, both had fun moments.

CHEYNEY, which was remade a few years later with Joan Crawford, is about a woman posing as a high society divorcee in order to steal jewels (with the help of a small band of conspirators who pose as her servants). She winds up spending the weekend at a house party where she falls in love with Basil Rathbone and ends up going straight. The best, most subtle performance here is by George Barraud as her primary confederate (and, apparently, lover).

In GAY, Shearer begins the movie as a dowdy wife and mother (she is made up to look so *very* plain that it took me several minutes to be sure that it was indeed her playing the part) who divorces her philandering husband, then meets up with him again three years later at a high society house party. She has transformed herself into a stunning beauty and charming wit, and of course, we know very soon that they will wind up together by the end. Rod La Rocque is absolutely terrible as the husband--he sounds like a cross between Vincent Price and Jack Benny, and looks pretty silly to boot. The best male performance is from Tyrell Davis as a silly, poetry-spouting buffoon.

The exaggerated performances in both movies seem to be partially on purpose, as a way of acting "upper-crust," but they do date the movies. It's difficult to tell if a character is actually supposed to be seen as genuine, duplicitious, or ridiculous. Hedda Hopper is in both and isn't bad, especially as the silly bitch in GAY, but the male actors are all fairly laughable. In GAY, all of them in fact seem rather light in their loafers even though, despite the evidence, they are all supposed to be solidly heterosexual. Being early talkies, they are both directed in very stagy fashion, like the Marx Brothers COCOANUTS, where most scenes are played in front of a static camera. GAY's direction is particularly inept, with several odd shots that look accidental but were kept in anyway. Marie Dressler gives a rather weak performance, fluffing a few lines, but I chalk that up to direction as well. Other scenes involve missed cues that they just decided to print and not shoot over. I can't really imagine watching either one again, but viewed as cultural artifacts, they were quite interesting.

Sunday, December 02, 2001


A lot of classic movie fans have said that this movie is one of their favorite romantic tearjerkers. I'm the kind who will cry at anything; after dozens of viewings, I still get choked up watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE--heck, I even get a little weepy just thinking about Chandler proposing to Monica on FRIENDS. However, I needed no Kleenex to get through this movie. Ronald Colman is a WWI soldier with shellshock and amnesia. He escapes from an asylum during the celebration of the Armistice and meets up with Greer Garson, a chorus girl who takes him under her wing. They make a life together as he recovers from shellshock, though he never remembers anything about his past life. Just after the birth of their child, he travels to Liverpool for a job interview and is hit by a car. He's alright, but his memory returns (it turns out he's from a wealthy family) and he completely forgets about his life with Garson. Eventually, Garson finds him, gets a job as his secretary, and basically turns into a long-suffering bystander, hoping he will eventually remember her.

The set-up is fine, if a bit melodramatic, but it just takes so damn long for it play out. At one point, Colman is on the verge of marrying Susan Peters but his sense of his missing life is too strong to let him simply settle down without knowing what he's missing from his past. Garson keeps hoping that something will jog his memory, but she remains mostly passive. I kept yelling at Garson, "Oh, for God's sake, just tell him!!" That kind of frustration kept me from getting teary. We are teased with a long scene near the end where Colman visits the town where he and Garson first met. He keeps running into people and places that he should remember, but he doesn't. That scene is kind of fun, in a tense way.

Colman is good in his early shellshock scenes, but I didn't think he gave his character much depth. However, I was impressed with Garson throughout, even when I wanted to slap her. She was lovely and dignified, though she certainly doesn't age the 12 years or so that she's supposed to. Reginald Owen (Scrooge in MGM's 1938 CHRISTMAS CAROL) has a nice bit as an old friend of Garson's, but even though there is a big supporting cast, including personal favorites Henry Travers, Una O'Connor, and Melville Cooper, not many get a chance to stand out. Not a bad movie, but a little disappointing.