Friday, August 23, 2002

Some End-of-Summer Catching Up

Over the next couple of days, I hope to post some short reviews of films I saw over the past three months that I was not so impressed with, or that got lost in the shuffle.

THE HEAVENLY BODY (1943)--After suffering through this, I now know that William Powell is fallible. At one time, I would have said that any movie he's in is worth watching. This one, sad to say, is not. Powell plays an astronomer who, caught up in the excitement of his discovery of a comet, neglects his wife (Hedy Lamarr), who consults an astrologer (Fay Bainter), who tells her that, within a few days, she will meet and fall in love with a well-traveled stranger. Sure enough, she meets up with a handsome and well-traveled air raid warden (James Craig). Powell is then forced to fight to get his wife back. Powell is OK, but Lamarr is terrible; with her dull-eyed look and her wooden acting, I wanted Powell to dump her from the get-go. Lamarr and the equally awkward Craig deserve each other. I think the writers thought they had a screwball comedy on their hands, but it has practically no snap and verve, and no chemistry between the actors. Bainter is good, as is Spring Byington in a small part as the nosy neighbor who gets Lamarr interested in asttology in the first place.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD (1936), another Powell film, is a so-so Thin Man knockoff. Powell is a doctor, divorced from Jean Arthur, a writer of mysteries. She wants to give the marriage another chance and she spends much of her time being obvious and obnoxious about reuniting. I had a bit of the same problem here as I've had with similar screwball comedy characters, like Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY and Fairbanks in JOY OF LIVING, but ridiculous single-minded characters like that are just part of the genre, I guess. At any rate, the two get drawn into solving the murder of a jockey during a big-money race. The mystery itself is sloppily plotted and the suspects are never very clearly differentiated from each other, so I didn't really care who did it. Robert Armstrong, Eric Blore, Ralph Morgan, and James Gleason are fine, however, and one of my favorite teenage actors, Frankie Darro, has a small but important part as a jockey who might be the next target for murder.

PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE (1952) is a stodgy retelling of the voyage of the Mayflower. Spencer Tracy is the captain; he's been hired to take the Pilgrims to the New World, but he has no convictions about their adventure--he's in it just for the money. Predictably, his gruff and cynical attitude undergoes a change by the end. Gene Tierney is good as the wife of John Alden, who has an affair (I think--it's never clear how far things go) with Tracy. Aside from that rather uneventful triangle, there's not much plot and things bog down often, aside from one nice sequence of a raging storm in the middle of the ocean. Leo Genn and Van Johnson are good, and Kathleen Lockhart, the real-life wife of Gene and mother of June, has a small role as the wife of a pilgrim who is wanted by the British authorities. Tracy's heart isn't in this and his character is too one-dimensional. I'm a little surprised that no one has tried to do another Mayflower movie in a mega-budget-action mode recently.

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