Thursday, January 31, 2002


I think this Warner Brothers comedy about a young woman who suddenly comes into a million dollars was made a few years too late. Its plot would have been much more in tune with the 30's Depression era zeitgeist (and movies like MY MAN GODFREY and EASY LIVING). As it is, it feels a bit tired and ragged. May Robson (wonderful as always, and the main reason for watching this all the way through) is a rich old lady who finds out that her late father, years ago while amassing his riches, was responsible for the ruin of a business partner. She tracks down the partner's only living heir, a relatively penniless young woman (Priscilla Lane) who works at a department store and lives in a rundown boarding house. Robson has her attorney (Jeffrey Lynn) give her a million dollars anonymously, then Robson comes to live at the boarding house, under an assumed name, to see how Lane copes. Lane's only real problem is her stubborn boyfriend, pianist Ronald Reagan, who fancies himself a serious composer (his serious work sounds a lot like "Rhapsody in Blue") and doesn't want to live off of Lane's new wealth; when Reagan leaves Lane, Lynn is ready to step in.

The cast manages to pull much of this off fairly well, especially Reagan, who is gruffer and edgier than usual. There's always something about Lynn that's a little creepy; he looks like a cartoon character, like he's always on the verge of being "hopped up." Nevertheless, he is ingratiating in his role here, and I actually wanted Lane to go off with Lynn (though it's no surprise that Reagan wins out in the end). The movie is a little too long--a ridiculous sequence where Lane refuses to believe she's rich unless she can actually *see* the cash should have been cut altogether. The most disappointing thing, however, is a promising plot direction that goes nowhere: when Robson arrives to stay at the boarding house, we are introduced to the boarders (including Lee Patrick in a wonderful small part as a brassy blonde showgirl) and it suddenly feels like a non-show biz STAGE DOOR. However, the interesting boarders don't really play much of a part in the proceedings until the very end. The moral of the story, that money can't buy happiness, is predictable and tedious--I really wanted Lane to dump self-righteous Reagan and live in luxury with Lynn!! Helen Westley is the crusty old landlady; John Ridgely and Charles Drake, two very handsome bit players with quite a few Warners credits to their names, pop up for a few moments.

Wednesday, January 30, 2002


The holidays are over, but this movie has little to do with Christmas anyway, despite its generic title. It's actually one of the more tedious films I've ever endured. The problem is that it just doesn't have any kind of coherent theme or narrative. Ann Harding (looking about as artificial an old lady as Greer Garson did in MRS. PARKINGTON) is an old eccentric who is in danger of having control of her money taken from her. For no particularly good reason except to give the movie a name, a judge gives her until Christmas Eve to round up her adopted sons (who have all vanished in pursuit of their own fortunes) so they can help her keep her money. The rest of the movie is the story of each son. It's not really worth going into plot details, since the stories themselves are rather fragmentary and boring, and they veer from comedy to melodrama to Nazi spies and back to comedy with no grace or consistency. George Brent is his usual self--reliable but not very exciting. George Raft and Randolph Scott are the other sons. Joan Blondell in a supporting part as a girl forcing herself on Brent is the sole saving grace. The look of the movie is drab and murky, probably due to budget rather than an attempt to set a tone. Quite disappointing.

Monday, January 28, 2002


I haven't seen enough Fritz Lang yet to have a handle on his style. Unlike SCARLET STREET, this is a rather light-toned thriller, based on a Graham Greene novel, and very Hitchcockian in many respects: plot, acting, situations. During WWII, Ray Milland is released from two years in an asylum (he was put there as punishment for the mercy killing of his wife, although we don't find that our until about a third of the way in). His first experience of the outside world is to be plunged into what seems to be a lovely British village fair, raising money for a group called Mothers of Free Nations. But after a couple of surreal happenings involving a fortune teller and a cake he wins at a booth, he realizes that he has been mistaken for a spy and he spends the rest of the movie trying to uncover the spy ring. Marjorie Reynolds (HOLIDAY INN) is his Germanic sweetheart, who is involved with the charity group. For most of the movie, we're not sure who to trust: Reynolds? Her seemingly harmless and altruistic brother? A lovely socialite who gives seances? One person we definitely don't trust is Dan Duryea, who pops up in almost as many identities as Mary Astor in THE MALTESE FALCON.

What makes this film is the atmosphere--lots of shadows and odd angles. The seance scene is great. So is the opening village fair--like Hitchcock, Lang can give a bland, everyday setting a creepy feeling. Speaking of which, he does the same thing for a later scene in a tailor's shop, with a very large pair of scissors as a central prop (inspiration for Hitchcock in DIAL M FOR MURDER?). The climactic rooftop chase is nicely done. The very last shot (played for laughs) is also right out of Hitchcock. Alan Napier (Alfred the bulter in the TV Batman series) has a small part. Well worth a viewing.

Saturday, January 26, 2002


Paul Newman's much-hated Hollywood debut; it's a Biblical epic-wannabe in which Newman plays a young silversmith in the first century A.D. who goes from being poor to being an heir to being a slave. He meets up with a group of fledgling Christians and takes the job of crafting a silver chalice for use in their communion ritual. Virginia Mayo teeters on tfhe brink of over-the-top as his pagan honey; Pier Angeli is his pleasant Christian love interest. Jack Palance plays a magician who gets the best scene: he builds a gigantic tower and decides to fake a midair flight in front of a crowd. However, he goes a bit nutty, thinks he's become a savior to compete with Jesus, and tries to fly for real. He can't.

Though Newman has disowned the movie, and it is largely a dragging bore, the bizarre minimalist sets are interesting. One critic said the sets made it look like an SF allegory, like a Twilight Zone episode, but I think it winds up feeling more like an avant-garde, Off-Broadway play. The acting is silly and the whole thing comes off feeling like a DeMille knockoff done with very little money, very little talent, and almost no enthusiasm. Thankfully, Newman bounced back quickly.

Friday, January 25, 2002


This movie is often named as an archetypal film noir, but it's really closer to being just a run-of-the-mill mystery. Its post-war attitude of gloom and a few nighttime wet streets are as close as it comes to noir. Alan Ladd and his buddies (William Benedix & Hugh Beaumont) return from the war without much in the way of future prospects. Benedix has a metal plate in his head and suffers from paranoia and blackouts when exposed to loud music. Ladd is pessimistic about his homecoming with his wife, and in fact, she's been living it up with others while he was away, specifically shady character Howard Da Silva (Ben Franklin in 1776). The scene where Ladd busts in on a little house party that his wife is having is about as exciting as the movie gets. The next morning, Ladd's wife winds up dead and both Da Silva and Benedix are suspects (as is Ladd, who the police are chasing, although we know he didn't do it). Veronica Lake is Da Silva's estranged wife who meets up accidently with Ladd and helps him find the real murderer. Ladd and Lake are lovely to look at (at times, they look like twins), but Lake's no femme fatale here, even though she certainly has the look down pat. The happy ending feels a bit empty, as does the out-of-left-field solution to the murder.

Thursday, January 24, 2002


If you want to know what all the fuss is about concerning "pre-Code" movies, watch this one. It's full of sex and sin and blase attitudes toward marriage. On top of all that, it's got a strange, unstable tone that veers wildly from low comedy to satire to melodrama in seconds, which keeps the viewer rather pleasantly off-kilter. According to "Sin in Soft Focus," a wonderful book about the pre-Code era, MGM tweaked the film after disasterous previews so that people would know it was a comedy, and it was eventually a big hit.

The opening montage of Harlow at her sexiest is a kick. "Can you see through this dress?" she asks the saleslady; "Why, yes you can," is the reply; "Then, I'll wear it," Harlow says, and we can indeed see for ourselves that the saleslady is right. Harlow makes no bones about intending to get ahead using sex and she aims herself right at her rich boss, Chester Morris, who does a nice job balancing tough and tender (not to mention confused) throughout. She destroys Morris's marriage, and the scene where this is clinched is truly wild, with Morris slapping her around, Harlow begging for more, and a key strategically slipped between heaving breasts. For some of the film, I was on Harlow's side, but toward the end, she goes overboard and I was confused about the "moral center" of the film. In this way, I was reminded of the tone of EMPLOYEE'S ENTRANCE, where despite Warren William's underhanded cruelty, we still have some smidgen of sympathy for him. Also, both pre-Code films let the immoral lead characters get away relatively scot-free.

The acting all around is very good--in addition to Harlow and Morris, Una Merkel is fun as Harlow's roomie (who continues to room with her even when she gets married!!), Henry Stephenson is good as an older man who gets tangled up in Harlow's clutches, and Lewis Stone is, well, Lewis Stone (as always) as Morris' father. One of my favorites, May Robson, is underused in a small part. If you're a fan of Harlow or Morris or pre-Code films, this is a must-see, with Harlow at her hottest.

Tuesday, January 22, 2002


Hollywood should leave portrayals of the Greek or Roman Gods to animators; I have yet to see a really good live-action movie about or featuring the gods. This probably comes closest. I remember seeing this on TV when I was 8 or 9 and playing along with the on-screen adventures--I set up my chessboard and had various chess pieces playing the parts of Jason and Zeus and Hera, etc., while I was watching the film. The Mt. Olympus sequences were the most fun for me then, but now I more fully appreciate the Ray Harryhausen animated effects. Actually, if the acting were a couple notches better, this might be a fantasy classic.

The story of Jason and his band of men sailing around the world in search of the Golden Fleece, which will allow Jason to take his rightful place as ruler of Thessaly, is basically just an excuse for a series of adventures, most of which involve the gods, or monsters, or both, and always the wonderful stop-motion FX work of Harryhausen. The darting Harpies and the gigantic statue that comes to life are memorable, but the very best part is the battle with the skeleton army. This sequence is so well done that the makers of the recent remake of The Mummy seem to have modeled a scene in that movie directly from the skeleton fight. The locations, sets, and costumes are fine, but the acting leaves much to be desired. Todd Armstrong as Jason looks the part, but comes off as a bland and ineffective hero; Nancy Kovack barely registers at all as Medea. Worst of all is Hercules, played by barrel-chested Nigel Green, looking dumpy and tired rather than strong and brave. The dubbing is atrocious, which is especially odd given that the actors all appear to be speaking English to begin with. Almost every scene is dubbed, giving the whole movie that feeling you get when you're at the drive-in and the sound is coming in your window rather than from the screen.

Thursday, January 17, 2002


Bette Davis, in high camp mode, in a movie that is known today mostly because Edward Albee immortalized Davis' "What a dump!" line reading in his play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The critics who do pay attention to this film don't like it, but I found it to be good, campy, soap-opera fun. Davis plays the wife of a small town doctor (Joseph Cotton) who is bland and altruistic, refusing to press his indigent patients for money owed him. She entertains fantasies about running off with her rich lover from Chicago and eventually does, but she winds up pregnant and humiliated by her lover, and lashes out in anger at everyone, including her slatternly Mexican maid. After getting her lover to promise to marry her, she then tries to get rid of the baby she's carrying. Did I mention she kills an old man along the way?

Basically, everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in here. Davis brays and whines very well throughout--and looks like hell in an odd black wig, which gives an almost surreal touch to the proceedings at times. From today's vantage point, I think we do have some sympathy for her character, but Davis' characterization makes it difficult (on purpose) to sustain that sympathy. However, that leaves no other character for us to like, so I wound up rooting for the murderous, grasping Davis. The production code seems to be the reason for some of the more obscure plot points toward the end. Despite its iffy reputation, this is certainly worth seeing at least once.

Wednesday, January 16, 2002


This is surely no classic, but it has such a weird reputation that I had to jump at the chance to see a letterboxed print of this on TCM. It's a satire of the James Bond genre and there are some good moments, especially in the first 15 minutes or so, when the head honchos of the world's spy organizations (including John Huston, William Holden, and Charles Boyer) try to talk James Bond (David Niven) out of retirement. It turns out that the British have substituted a younger man (presumably Sean Connery, although he's never seen or mentioned) to keep Bond's legend alive. Niven is a chaste teetotaler who just wants to stay in retirement, but he eventually returns to the fray to help fight SMERSH, agreeing to train other spies to be passed off as Bonds. After this satiric opening, it's all downhill--four different directors put this together and it shows in its wild and episodic incoherence. It's a bit like a Mel Brooks movie (especially the ending, where cowboys and Indians are thrown surrealistically into the scene), if Brooks were an unmedicated schizophrenic.

A lot of money was spent on this and it shows in the elaborate costumes and colorful sets, and the actors all look like they're having fun, but at over two hours, it really drags. Woody Allen is criminally underused and Peter Sellers is surprisingly ineffective; Niven, Ursula Andress, and Deborah Kerr come out relatively unscathed. Ultimately, it seemed like an overdone Austin Powers film, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Mike Myers actually based the look and feel of the Powers movies in part on CASINO ROYALE. The two jokes I remember most vividly are music-cues involving "What's New Pussycat" and "Born Free." This is a real oddball flick, recommended only to curiosity seekers, or fans of David Niven.

Monday, January 14, 2002


Until recently, I haven't been a huge fan of Clark Gable or Joan Crawford, but I have discovered that I like their early movies quite a bit. They have wonderful chemistry here. Gable returns from an extended trip overseas, finally having made up his mind to propose to his old pal Crawford. However, on the day of his return, he stumbles in on a party being given on the eve of her wedding to Robert Montgomery. The three are all friends and Gable hides his disappointment. But Montgomery jilts her at the altar for a snooty bitch from his past, leaving Crawford distraught. Time passes and Crawford soon schemes to break up Montgomery's marriage. Gable gets caught in the middle--he still loves Crawford, but he knows she still loves (or at least she *thinks* she still loves) Montgomery so he is reluctant to let her know how he feels.

The plot works nicely (a romantic comedy with melodramatic edges), although it wraps up too quickly at the end. The writing is good, with some sharp and witty dialogue, but the acting is what really makes this movie shine. Gable and Crawford both give it their all but still come off as relaxed and charmimg. Also wonderful are Billie Burke and Rosalind Russell. Russell's part is too small--she has a fair number of lines in the first half, but basically vanishes in the last half. Montgomery is Montgomery, fulfilling the role of the charming heel. Charles Butterworth plays Gable's friend. I don't remember seeing him before and he's good, but I kept thinking that Roland Young would be better--there's even a faint physical resemblence between the two actors.

Thursday, January 10, 2002


An MGM B-romantic comedy about love between the classes. Lana Turner is a dance-hall girl who falls for a rich college kid (Lew Ayres) who has drunkenly invited her to his college's big party weekend. Of course, the lower-class Turner ends up teaching Ayres a thing or two about life and they wind up (quite improbably) together at the end. The interesting supporting cast includes Ann Rutherford, the ever-boyishly handsome Richard Carlson (in one of his first movies), Marsha Hunt, and Jane Bryan. It's mostly light in tone, but takes a weirdly melodramatic turn towards the end, including the rather out-of-nowhere suicide of a minor character. As is often the case with B-movies, there is too much plot for the movie to deal with in its short running time and the ending is incredibly rushed, with all kinds of plotlines left hanging, including the one with the suicide, which I ended up caring about more than I cared about what happened to callow boy Lew Ayres.

Tuesday, January 08, 2002


A nice little B-comedy that feels a bit like a cross between MARY POPPINS and LADY FOR A DAY (with a little dash of MILDRED PIERCE). Ruth Donnelly is Lizzie, maid to the Bentleys; Arthur Treacher, as the butler, is sweet on her in his gruff British-butler way. In the opening scene, the first plot thread is established--she quits because her wages haven't been paid in weeks and goes to work for the Smiths, a middle-class family; Mrs. Smith (Margaret Lindsay) has dreams of social and financial upward mobility. Lizzie is more than happy to egg her on and the family does eventually rise up in status. The second plot thread involves Lizzie's secret: she has a daughter she had to give up to her dead husband's rich parents. Soon, the grown daughter (Anita Louise) is dating Mrs. Smith's brother and Lizzie is trying to keep an eye on her while keeping her secret. There are touches of melodrama here, but the tone of the movie remains light and there are happy endings all around. A pleasant little discovery, even if little of it ever rings true.

Sunday, January 06, 2002


A fantasy/romance with Leslie Howard as a man who becomes embittered for life because his bride-to-be (Norma Shearer) is killed during their wedding ceremony by a drunken and jealous suitor (Fredric March). Howard grows old alone and occasionally communes with Shearer's spirit. Eventually, he adopts Shearer's niece (who grows up to be played by Shearer); the niece then falls in love with March's son (played by March). The construction of the plot reminded me of WUTHERING HEIGHTS (the book, not the Olivier movie) with the joys and sorrows of one generation playing out differently in the next. As teary romantic fantasies go, it's works rather well, although a few times Shearer goes overboard in the weeping department--to be fair, sometimes it's the fault of the dialogue. The movie is beautifully shot and Howard
is convincing both as a young, sensitive soul and as a old, bitter man. March and Shearer have good chemistry together. The play it's based on is described in its subtitle as a "comedy," but the movie is not, although it does have a relatively happy ending. This would make a good companion piece to PETER IBBETSON

Friday, January 04, 2002


A sweet, sad coming-of-age story. I had heard a lot about this movie's wrenching Christmas scene and it didn't disappoint. Peggy Ann Garner plays Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in turn of the century Brooklyn. Dorothy McGuire is marvelous in the part of the loving but rather cold mother--I had only seen her in softer, more passive parts so I was surprised how complex she made her character here. It's clear that she loves her husband and daughter (and even her black sheep sister), but it seems she has been forced by situation to be the member of the family who has to make the tough choices. Even though he looks a bit too old for the part, James Dunn is equally strong as the dreamy father whom Garner adores. He prides himself on being a great singing waiter, but he can't hold a decent job long enough to provide his family with a consistent income, largely becuse of his drinking. He drinks because he's always dreaming of a better, more beautiful life. Joan Blondell was a revelation as McGuire's good-time (and good-hearted) sister; this is one of the few roles I've seen her in where she actually had a strong, well-written character. Even though she ultimately doesn't get much screen time, she makes the most of what she does get. The old-time Brooklyn sets were wonderful, although oddly enough, I don't remember getting a good shot of the title tree, which, though symbolic, is also real. James Gleason and Lloyd Nolan have memorable supporting parts. Overall, a tearjerking gem.

Wednesday, January 02, 2002


This movie gave me new respect for Olivia De Havilland. She played a part unlike any I'd ever seen her do, and she did a great job. She plays a woman who has had a breakdown and is sent to an institution to recover. The movie opens quite effectively with De Havilland sitting on a bench, somewhat disoriented, hearing voices and delivering an interior monologue, not quite knowing where she is or why she's there. We learn, along with her, what's happening as she encounters other patients (who include Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Ruth Donnelly, and Betsy Blair, who was Gene Kelly's wife at the time). She undergoes shock treatment and therapy (with Leo Genn as a sympathetic doctor who always seems to have a portrait of Freud hanging conspicuously above his head) and slowly her memories of her life return. She gets worse before she gets better, and the best scene is when she is thrown into the "snake pit," a ward full of violent patients. In a wonderful shot, we see it as De Havilland sees it, seen from high in the sky like a huge pit in the ground. Her ultimate breakthrough feels a bit simplistic--the message seems to be, "You shouldn't want to sleep with your father"--but De Havilland never strikes a false note in the whole movie. Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) has a small part as De Havilland's mother in flashback scenes.