Sunday, September 29, 2002


A solid noirish melodrama; it might have come off a little better with a stronger leading actor, but it's certainly worth seeing. The film begins with Robert Young on trial for murder; the rest of the story is his flashback testimony of how he wound up in this jam. Stuck in an unhappy marriage with a rich woman (Rita Johnson), Young engages in a flirtation with Jane Greer that's about to get pretty serious until the wife butts in and buys him a partnership in a brokerage firm. He breaks things off with Greer and moves out to the West Coast, and eventually starts another fling, this time with sexy golddigger Susan Hayward. The wife again takes action, buys him *out* of his job and isolates the two of them in a mountain home where he's kept on a tight leash. Soon, he gets up the gumption to run off with Hayward, but in that film noir way, fate intervenes with ironic and deadly twists and turns until Young winds up acccused of murder, which he didn't commit, even though he does bear some "cosmic" moral responsibility for the situation; he did have murder in his heart, he lied, he betrayed his wife, and maybe worst of all in the film noir universe, was too weak to take control of his own life. The way that Greer comes back into the movie is perhaps its most interesting twist, except for its nicely ironic ending.

Though the setting is mostly out in nature rather than on dark, rainy streets, it still has a strong noir feeling in the same way that OUT OF THE PAST, also set out in nature (and also with Jane Greer) did. The plot and the characterization of the leading male brought to mind DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Both Young and Fred MacMurray play rather weak men dealing with conflicting impulses of good and evil, and both went on to greater stardom playing passive father figures on 50's & 60's TV. Young leaves a little bit to be desired in the lead role, but the rest of the acting is good. I don't always like Susan Hayward, but she's very good here. I hadn't heard much about this movie, but I recommend catching it if it crops up on TCM again.

Saturday, September 28, 2002


This lean little noir thriller has a strong critical reputaton, but the years have not been kind to it. It's only 70 minutes, but it still felt a bit long--it would have worked better as an hour-long TV episode (which means roughly 45 minutes of plot, with credits and ads added). Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy are on a road trip when they pick up hitchhiker William Talman, who it turns out is a psychopathic murderer who has been hitching rides and killing drivers for days. Except for a little exposition at the beginning (with the first murder taking place during the credits), the whole movie is mostly the three of them in the car and, after it breaks down, in the desert, as Talman tries to reach a Mexican coast town to escape by ferry boat. The tension is broken towards the end with a few cutaway scenes of the police as they begin to zero in on the group, but these are kept to a minumum. Talman is very good, edgy and creepy, with a paralyzed eye that stays open even when he's asleep (I wonder if Talman actually had that injury? IMDb doesn't say). O'Brien's never been a favorite of mine, but he's very good here, as is Lovejoy. The trusting and caring relationship between the two is developed nicely and is part of what saves them. I couldn't help but wonder why the two didn't just try to attack him, since he flat out tells them that, eventually, he's going to kill them, so they would seem to have little to lose. Nice photography and some nice directorial touches here and there. Worth seeing, but not as thrilling as it probably once seemed.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002


Though not as good as THREE GODFATHERS or OX-BOW INCIDENT, this is a decent entry in the "bleak western" genre. Preston Foster is a gambler who owns a saloon which doubles as a gambling house (and a brothel, I assume). Despite the success of his business ventures, he is generally considered a bad influence in town. He reluctantly adopts a little orphan girl (who grows up to be Virginia Weidler) and, when a schoolmarm (Jean Muir) arrives to bring education to the rough frontier town, he turns the girl over to her, assuming Muir will be a better caretaker--and Muir gets some help from Van Heflin, as a young preacher who arrives with her to build a church. In the course of the story, Foster is revealed to be a softie and a good guy at heart. The rather rambling plot suddenly takes a weird turn in the last 10 minutes when Foster and some of his cronies are tossed out of town, and Muir, in love with Foster, follows. They wind up stranded in a cabin in a snowstorm with no food and no way to keep warm. Heroism and death follow. Like THREE GODFATHERS, the bleak ending leaves us with a somewhat muddled message. Most of the acting is good (Foster, Weidler, Heflin, and Margaret Irving as the good-hearted "madam" who basically lives with Foster and helps raise Weidler), but Jean Muir as the schoolmarm is wooden and irritating. I found it hard to believe that she'd fall for Foster, and especially that he'd fall for her. Overall, pretty good for a short B-western.

Sunday, September 22, 2002


This movie, which many think has Joan Crawford's best performance ever, is an interesting mix of noir atmosphere and old-fashioned "women's" melodrama, with a little Hollywood psychoanalysis thrown into the mix. I'm sure there's a good book out there somewhere about how and why Hollywood embraced themes of psychological distress and mental illness in the 40's. This, THE SNAKE PIT, and THE LOST WEEKEND all share certain elements, including visual style and an ambiguous attitude toward the power of medicine to explain and cure mental illness. Crawford is a nurse to the ill (physically and mentally, I assume) wife of Raymond Massey, a character whom we never actually see. Crawford's also carrying on an affair with engineer Van Heflin, who winds up working for Massey. Heflin wants to break things off with Crawford; to him, they're just having a casual fling, but he thinks she's become clingy with her talk of marriage and his rejection begins to unbalance Crawford. When Massey's wife kills herself, Massey asks Crawford to marry him, even though he knows she doesn't love him. He agrees to essentially a sexless union and they marry, though Crawford keeps one eye on Heflin. Massey's daughter, Geraldine Brooks, is slow to trust Crawford, but soon comes around. Unfortunately, she also begins dating Heflin, whose motives for the relationship may not be entirely pure (Daddy's rich). This sets the stage for Crawford's eventual full-blown fall into psychosis.

Crawford carefully walks an acting tightrope here; her character is high-strung from the start and goes certifiably mad by the end, but Crawford never goes over-the-top, tempting as that must have been, especially since she spent much of the 50's doing exactly that in her films. I'm not a big Heflin fan but he is fine here, doing a good job of keeping his character's motivations tantalizingly ambigious. In fact, none of the main characters are exactly "black or white" in terms of their actions or judgments. The relationship of Crawford and Brooks was reminiscent to me of the relationships of both Stanwyck and MacMurray to the daughter in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The noir lighting and expressionist-style look really add to the film's atmosphere, especially in its opening and closing sequences (like INDEMNITY, it's told in a long flashback). Though this isn't quite as good as INDEMNITY or as compelling as THE SNAKE PIT, it is still very much worth seeing, and it contains maybe Crawford's last great role (?).

Friday, September 20, 2002

Two Comic Trifles with Nat Pendleton

Pendleton was a wrestler who sustained a decent career in the movies as a comic sidekick. I just happened to watch these two fiilms right in a row recently; other than having Pendleton and being comedies, they have little else in common.

BABY FACE HARRINGTON (1935)--This was probably one of supporting actor Charles Butterworth's few leading roles, albeit in a fairly short, second-feature movie. It's essentially the story of one eventful day in the life of a mild-mannered husband (married to Una Merkel): first, he gets fired when he asks for a raise; then, he loses the money he withdrew from the bank to pay off his mortgage, and he wrongly accuses a relative (Donald Meek) of stealing it. Thrown in jail overnight for stealing money from Meek, he gets involved in a breakout masterminded by a real thief, Nat Pendleton. Of course, you see it coming a mile away that he'll wind up a hero. I liked Butterworth in a Roland Young-type part in FORSAKING ALL OTHERS, but he doesn't quite have what it takes to do a strong comic lead. But there is a wonderfully dry and somewhat dark bit near the end where he decides to kill himself by hanging, and winds up in a long, humorous conversation with Pendleton over kinds of knots. Merkel, of course, is good as usual.

IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD (1939)--I saw this way back in the late 80's, before TCM, when TNT was showing old movies,with ads. I didn't like it then, but I decided, what with Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert and TCM's adless presentation, to give it another chance. No dice. It's a screwball mystery--Stewart is a man who's on his way to jail as an accessory in a murder case; he escapes in order to try and catch the real killer and save not just himself but his boss, who is about to be executed. Colbert is a whacky poet he meets along the way--he carjacks her, then can't get rid of her as she vows to help him. I like Colbert here, but Stewart is not up to his usual high standard. The supporting cast is solid, including Pendleton, Guy Kibbee, and Cecil Cunningham, but I couldn't recommend this except to diehard fans of screwball.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

CAIRO (1942)

I am most assuredly not a fan of Jeanette MacDonald, so I don't know why I watched CAIRO in the first place. She has a couple of moments here, but like Ruby Keeler in COLLEEN (which I reviewed a few days ago), she is mostly a big energy drain at the center of the movie. Overall, it's a rather cute spy movie spoof, with Robert Young as an American reporter who gets in over his head with a spy ring in Cairo. He thinks MacDonald is a German spy, and gets suckered in by the real spies (including Reginald Owen and Mona Barrie, an actress I'd never heard of, who is pretty good here). There is a very funny bit where Barrie complains about the constant use of secret passages ("Why can't we use doors like normal people?"). There are sneaky references to WIZARD OF OZ and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, and a very fun reference to MacDonald's role in the movie SAN FRANCISCO: Young says to her, "Have you ever been in San Francisco," and she replies, "Once, with Gable and Tracy, and the joint fell apart." Ethel Waters gets to sing but otherwise is underused, as is Dooley Wilson, who gets about three minutes of screen time as Waters' love interest. Despite MacDonald, it is a fun movie, although it drags a bit in the middle.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

DESK SET (1957)

I'm pleased to report that I finally found a pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that I like. I pretty much hate WOMAN OF THE YEAR, don't much care for ADAM'S RIB or GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, and feel neutral about KEEPER OF THE FLAME. But I saw DESK SET the other night on AMC and enjoyed it (except for the terrible pan & scan print).

Tracy is an efficieny expert brought in to do some work in the reference library of a TV network. The reference librarians assume that whatever he's doing, it's a threat to their jobs; it turns out he's paving the way for a huge room-sized computer to be brought into the department and the women fear it's intended to replace them. Hepburn is the head librarian and she and the other librarians (including Joan Blondell) have a nice casual chemistry. Hepburn has been dating network exec Gig Young for years but the relationship's not going anywhere and she and Tracy begin to hit it off. They have a number of cute scenes together, including a causal lunch on a rooftop and a drunken Christmas party. Tracy does a good job at playing a 50's version of a computer geek, a little oblivious to what's going on around him. Neva Patterson is good as the "techie" who is brought in to run the computer; her demeanor reminded me of Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith in FRASIER. Given that it was made in 1957, I was surprised at the casual assumption that Hepburn & Young's relationship was an intimate one, despite they're not being married. The "surprise" ending involving the computer was nice. I think Tracy and Hepburn were perhaps just a bit too old for their parts, but this was still pretty much a delight all the way around.

Friday, September 13, 2002

Two Early 30's MGM Movies (how's that for an interesting theme?)

TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933)--Marie Dressler in the part she's probably most remembered for (aside perhaps from her relatively small part in DINNER AT EIGHT). She and Wallace Beery have good chemistry as an earthy, long-married couple who run a tugboat. Beery's an irresponsible drunk but he remains mostly likeable; Dressler is the backbone of both the family and the movie. Robert Young is their son who makes good and then essentially cuts all ties to his family on account of Beery's drinking. If this movie were remade today, they would be the very model of a dysfunctional, codependent family. Of course, Berry gets the chance to make good in a melodramatic finale involving bad weather. I usually go into Beery movies not wanting to like him, but he always wins me over (except perhaps in GRAND HOTEL). Frankie Darro, one of my favorite kid actors, plays the Robert Young character as a child. Overall, a bit sappy and predictable, but an interesting cultural artifact--it was apparently an incredibly popular movie in its day.

THIS MODERN AGE (1931)--Interesting mostly as a somewhat bizarre pre-Code relic. At heart, it's a bland melodrama whose main point of interest is Crawford's shiny blonde hair. She plays a young woman who finds her long-lost mother (Pauline Frederick) in Paris and tries to catch up on lost time with her. The mother is being kept by a married man, but she hides this from Crawford, who herself is beginning to fall in with a fast crowd, led by a young, rich drunkard played by Monroe Owsley (who looks a little like a cross between Pee-Wee Herman and Ayre Gross). Thanks to the boy's drinking, they get in a car crash (oddly played for laughs) and Neil Hamilton saves them. Crawford falls for Hamilton, and vice versa, until he finds out the truth about Crawford's mother. Predictable plot twists ensue on the way to a forced happy ending. No need to worry about catching this one unless you're a Crawford fanatic.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

COLLEEN (1936)

The Warner Brothers musical was definitely on its way down with this one, a rather drab affair all around. The trappings are OK, but the Busby Berkeley touch is missed and the multi-undertalented Ruby Keeler provides a vacuum at the center of the movie. There is a rather convoluted plot reminiscent of the Gold Diggers movies, except it doesn't revolve around the staging of a Broadway show. Keeler is a bookkeeper for a dress design company. She falls for Dick Powell, a businessman who is ordered by his rich but very eccentric boss (and uncle) Hugh Herbert to shut the company down. Jack Oakie (also undertalented and occasionally irritating, but serviceable here) is Keeler's con-man boyfriend, who gets sweet on golddigging Joan Blondell, who is plucked out of a chocolate factory by Herbert, who wants her to be his mistress, against the wishes of his wife, Louise Fazenda. Got it? There are rather bland songs scattered throughout, and a couple of creative dance numbers, including the finale "You Gotta Know How to Dance." Blondell and Fazenda give the movie its only real zip. If you like Herbert's befuddled and giggly schtick, you'll love him here--he does a lot of it. Marie Wilson has a small part and Ward Bond has an even smaller part as a cop. The most interesting thing about the movie is that during the credits, the actors introduce their characters through song.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002


This is a cute little comedy (not quite a musical, although there are several songs performed) with 30's bandleader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge band. I'd seen one previous Kyser movie, YOU'LL FIND OUT, which as I recall was about spies and seances, but that was quite a while ago. This one, from 1939, was his first movie, and it has a premise full of self-referential fun: a studio head hears Kyser's popular radio show and has the idea to bring Kyser and his band to Hollywood to appear in a movie. When he sees Kyser's plain appearance, he realizes that he's not cut out to be a romantic leading man, as the role calls for, and he tries to get Kyser to bow out. However, Kyser catches on and instead plays along until he gets the producer to agree to buy him out of his contract.

The first half is quite funny and moves along at a good speed. As the plot thickens in the middle, it bogs down a bit, but there are pleasures to be had all along the way. May Robson is delightful as Kyser's earthy grandmother; Edward Everett Horton is one of the screenwriters; Adolphe Menjou is a studio boss; Lucille Ball is an ambitious starlet. The funniest scene involves a screen test with Kyser, playing a gondolier, romancing Ball. He has ridiculous makeup, including huge hoop earrings, a loose toupee that flaps around, and a patently fake mustache that winds up on Ball's face during a kiss. The plot actually ends at around the 80 minute mark and the last ten minutes is a recreation of a real Kyser radio show. His famous sideman, Ish Kabibble, is deadpan fun. The musical highlight is a weird number where they all dress up like animals and sing a song about a fox and a dog, and there's even an early OZ reference courtesy a singing scarcrow!

Sunday, September 08, 2002


According to the calendar, fall should soon be upon us, but with our Internet "Weather Bug" telling me that it's 97 degrees out right now, summer seems to be in no hurry to leave. So watching this film, set on a hot summer afternoon in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, seemed in order. I'd seen this movie in bits and pieces over the years but never all of it until now. I was quite impressed and am still thinking it through. Burt Lancaster is a suburban advertising man, with wife and kids, who frivolously decides to swim home one summer afternoon through the pools of his neighbors. (Where he's been that morning and why he's wearing only swimming trunks in the first place is never brought up.) In doing so, he meets up with people he hasn't socialized with in a while and has to face up to unpleasant elements of his past (an abandoned mistress) and present (an unsavory crush on college girl who used to babysit for his kids). For a while, I thought this wasn't working; the narrative thread is rather weak, and many of the characters, especially Lancaster, talk at times in overblown dialogue that doesn't always quite come off. But eventually it begins to gel: it's really more a personal allegory than a totally realistic narrative. It turns out that Lancaster has a secret, from us if not from his neighbors, and the revelation at the end, though not totally out of the blue, is stunningly presented. It could be that the whole thing is happening mostly in Lancaster's mind; I haven't decided yet what I think about that.

Too much of the dialogue was obviously post-dubbed which gives the whole thing a weird distancing effect, like a dubbed foreign movie. But even when things got slow, Burt Lancaster in the prime of his life, in tight swim trunks, was enough eye candy to get me to stick with it. The cast is mostly unknowns and TV actors, with a brief but showy part by Janice Rule--apparently filmed several months after principal photography was completed. The production history of the movie was a rocky one, but unlike many troubled films, the off-screen problems don't affect the movie. Highly recommended if you have a high tolerance for allegory.

In the end, we discover that Lancaster has apparently lost his cushy job and house, and possibly his wife and kids as well. The neighbors he meets as he swims through the pools all seem to be aware that something bad happened to him in the past, and they're surprised to see him, but none act like there's anything wrong with his references to his house and his family, and the specifics of his loss or trauma are never made clear. All we know is that when he finally comes to his pool, the house is locked up and the grounds look like they haven't been cared for in quite a while. Stickler for narrative that I am, I am left wondering: Where was he just before the beginning of the movie? Did he lose his house and none of the neighbors knew? Or do they know and are humoring him? Why is he in swimming trunks? Or, does none of it work on a literal level? Has he lost both his lifestyle *and* his mind? Was he in an instituion? Is the whole thing a "rich white guy male menopause" episode? In some ways, all that stuff doesn't matter; the effect of the ending is strong and leaves an impact no matter how you choose to interpret the film.

Saturday, September 07, 2002


This is a wartime variety-show musical loosely based on the real-life USO experiences of the main actresses: Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and a dancer named Mitzi Mayfair who I had never heard of before I saw this film. The four, who all play themselves, go from doing a USO radio show in the States to traveling to England to play for the soldiers, then volunteering to head out to North Africa in the middle of some real action (where it threatens to become a bland variation on CRY HAVOC). I understand that the plot is basically an excuse for the musical numbers, but the numbers are nothing to write home about, except for Martha Raye singing a swing novelty called "Mr. Paganini" (a song I know from Ella Fitzgerald, my favorite singer of all time).

Kay Francis comes off the best, even though, as she admits, she doesn't sing, dance, or recite, but she is the backbone of the group, organizing events and keeping up morale. The bland Dick Haymes plays a soldier who falls for Mayfair. The infinitely irritating Phil Silvers is an infinitely irritating soldier who is assigned to accompany the girls. Some celebs who appear as themselves include Carmen Miranda, Alice Faye (who does a nice rendition of "You'll Never Know"), and George Jessel. The North Africa section, with the Jills playing nurse under fire, rings totally false, but dramatically is the most satisfying part of the movie. I must admit I could barely stay awake through this one, and if it weren't for Kay Francis, I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing it.

Friday, September 06, 2002


When this was shown recently on TCM, Robert Osborne described it as a gangster spoof, which is, I think, misusing the word "spoof." It is, however, very light in tone, with some funny moments. Edward G. Robinson plays a gangster who thinks things are getting too hot so he decides to retire and live the classy life (a plot thread straight out of an earlier Robinson movie, THE LITTLE GIANT). He leaves his mob in the hands of Humphrey Bogart--Robinson should have learned, after KID GALAHAD and THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE, not to trust Bogart!). Things don't work out, so Robinson comes back to the old business, only to be double-crossed by Bogie and the mob (except for faithful sidekick Allen Jenkins). On the run from assassins, Robinson winds up wounded on the grounds of a monastery. The brothers give him medical treatment and he decides to lay low and stay with the flower-growing monks for a while (hence the title of the movie), but eventually he gets dragged back into his old life, at least for one more shot at revenge against Bogie.

Robinson is good, especially in the earlier scenes; his final transformation to gentle monk could be handled better. Donald Crisp and Cecil Kellaway are fine as monks; Allen Jenkins is also good, but rather inexplicably vanishes from the movie about halfway through. The surprise for me was Ann Sothern, who steals most of her scenes as Robinson's long-time gal who keeps hoping against hope that he'll marry her (rather like Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS). The last few minutes are wrapped up a little too quickly, but otherwise, quite worth watching.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002


In WWII, during the occupation of France, a group of French soldiers are talked into surrendering to the Germans with the promise of being sent home, but are tricked and sent to a concentration camp. The movie follows their attempts to stay sane and healthy, and to escape to join the Resistance. Gene Kelly is the cockiest one of the bunch who is eventually beaten down through torture. Jean-Pierre Aumont becomes the de facto leader of the men, remaining level-headed but optimistic, and eventually leading an escape. Cedric Hardwicke, Hume Cronyn and Wallace Ford are other prisoners. Peter Lorre is appropriately slimy as a Nazi bureaucrat. The post-escape section of the movie, in which some of the men manage to hide out in a small village and lead the entire village populace in an uprising, feels a little too Hollywood, but it certainly helps the film's propaganda quotient; the main point of the story seems to be to show American audiences that not all the French gave up or became collaborators--the title cross is a symbol of the Free French. For a 40's movie, there is a rather startling scene of violence where a Nazi gets a knife in the neck. Aumont's genuine French accent thows things off for a while, since none of the other actors is even really trying to sound French; until you get used to it, it feels like Aumont is the only French soldier among an international group. Overall, it isn't very realistic, but it is occasionally exciting and manages to rouse the right inspirational feelings.

Monday, September 02, 2002

SMARTY (1934)

This is an infuriating little comedy, an early (1934) screwball, with a lead female character who manages to be more irritating than the Hepburn character in BRINGING UP BABY--and for me to say that, you know she had to be a truly unlikeable bitch. Despite my intense dislike of the character, Joan Blondell, who plays her in one of her few leads, is very good, a little different in tone than I've ever seen her. She's not quite tough, but she's not a whimpering wallflower. She's not dumb, but she's not all that smart, either (I have no idea where the title comes from; the British title, HIT ME AGAIN, makes much more sense). I laughed out loud several times, even while I was grinding my teeth at both the Blondell character and the way she was treated.

Plotwise, Blondell has a fight with her husband (Warren William, also cast a smidge against type, where he seems NOT to be a ruthless and callous bastard businessman) and he slaps her in the face at a dinner party. She doesn't actually seem to be all that hurt, physically or emotionally, but she nevertheless decides to get a divorce, egged on by lawyer friend Edward Everett Horton, who is himself in love with Blondell. After the divorce, Horton marries Blondell and is eventually driven to slap her as well, which sends her back to William, who not only slaps her again, but also rips her dress off before carting her to the bedroom for what looks to be consensual sex.

The message, honest to God, is that some women just need to be slapped around every so often, and when they (and their husbands) realize that, happiness will reign supreme. Yes, the Blondell character was incredibly obnoxious, always choosing to do the stupidest, most irritating thing in any given situation, but how even mild physical abuse is the answer to that is beyond me. What these men see in her (aside from her physical charms, which are nicely displayed) is also beyond me. I thought William and Horton should both have dumped Blondell and gone off together at the end. The acting all around is quite good. Claire Dodd and Frank McHugh provide nice comic relief (relief, that is, from the "comic" arguing and violence that occurs among the three leads). I've rarely enjoyed a movie and been so exasperated by it at the same time. The fact that it's only an hour long helps; if it were made a few years later, it would have been stretched out to at least 90 minutes and probably would have been unbearable. Even though this would seem to be an early example of screwball comedy (it came out the same year as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, which many claim to be the first screwball), I have yet to find a reference to this film in any critical histories or even in the standard reference books, like Halliwell or Maltin. Perhaps it deserves to be mostly lost.