Tuesday, December 31, 2002

2002: My Movie-Watching Year, Part 2

I enjoy all kinds of older movies and I usually adjust my tolerance level based on the kind of film I'm watching (genre, budget, year in which it was made) and the stars involved. I can usually find something I like about most of the "classic" movies I see, even the ones that aren't so classic. I wrote about my favorites yesterday; today, here are the worst of last year's batch, with year of release and the month this year when I reviewed it:

CHRISTMAS EVE (1947/Jan): Though set at Christmas, almost nothing else about this marks it as a holiday movie. It's a boring and episodic melodrama (with some supposedly comic touches here and there) about an old lady who tries to unite her sons at Christmas in order to save her fortune. Ann Harding tries, but she is saddled with the worst old-age makeup I've ever seen.

COLLEEN (1936/Sept): 1936 was clearly a bad year for Warner Brothers' musicals. Like STAGE STRUCK (see below), this is another boring and charmless musical with Dick Powell stuck supporting a cardboard leading lady, in this case, Ruby Keeler. Keeler is OK in 42ND STREET, but not here.

KEEPING COMPANY (1940/July): A low point in Frank Morgan's career, playing a sit-comish dad meddling in his daughter's love life. Even the blandest episode of "Leave It to Beaver" is more watchable than this.

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932/Aug): When W. C. Fields can't make a movie fun, something's very wrong. Its a little like DUCK SOUP except with bad writing, weak acting, and satire that never hits its mark. The presence of the terminally unfunny Jack Oakie is the final nail in the film's coffin.

NAVY BLUES (1941/Dec): Speaking of Jack Oakie (THE GREAT DICTATOR aside, how did this man sustain an acting career?) he helps to sink this terrible near-wartime musical, though Jack Haley and ridiculous plotting are also to blame. Poor Ann Sheridan tries, as does Martha Raye, but it's hopeless. The less said, the better.

PICCADILLY JIM (1936/Feb): Any movie with Robert Montgomery in a starring role is an iffy proposition for me. This is the worst I've seen from him. He is totally unable to pull off the casual charm needed to make the audience see that his obnoxious character is a likeable guy at heart. Eric Blore and Billie Burke are fine, but not enough reason to make me ever sit through this again.

STAGE STRUCK (1936/Apr): Along with COLLEEN (see above), the low point of the Warners musical, a far cry from the Gold Diggers movies. Dick Powell doesn't have enough charisma to save the proceedings, although Joan Blondell and Frank McHugh are fun. Jeanne Madden gives perhaps the worst leading-role peformance in a major studio film that I've ever seen. And despite Busby Berkeley's presence behind the camera, there are no full-fledged production numbers to take our attention away from the dreadfully boring story.

TORRID ZONE (1940/March): Two performers I usually like, James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, are wasted in this boring attempt to cross elements of RED DUST and THE FRONT PAGE. Sheridan is OK, but Cagney seems to be sleepwalking through his part. This doesn't even have the strong supporting cast that can make a weak film like this fun.

This was the year I discoverd that Ann Sheridan alone can't save a movie and that Virginia Weidler's wonderful performance in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was apparently a fluke (based on KEEPING COMPANY, ROOKIE COP, and THE YOUNGEST PROFESSION). I finally got to see a Mr. Moto movie (so-so), and I found that I like Olivia De Havilland more than I thought I did (THE SNAKE PIT, MY LOVE CAME BACK, and THE DARK MIRROR, a movie I saw but haven't written up yet). I discovered Douglas Sirk and hope to track down more of his films in the coming year. And I continued to be charmed by Chester Morris (RED-HEADED WOMAN, FIVE CAME BACK, THE BIG HOUSE, FLIGHT FROM GLORY).

As far as recent films I saw this year, the less said, the better. GOSFORD PARK, ABOUT A BOY and FAR FROM HEAVEN were the best; SIGNS was the worst (a good first half-hour squandered by a terribly disappointing climax). On video, I caught up with FRAILTY, WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY, COOKIE'S FORTUNE, UNDER THE SAND, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and FROM HELL, all of which were worth seeing. I'm looking forward to CHICAGO, THE HOURS, THE PIANIST, MAX, and SPIRITED AWAY, none of which I've seen yet. And now, on to 2003!!

Monday, December 30, 2002

2002: The Best of My Movie-Watching Year

I wrote up over 200 movies on my web log this year and as I glanced over all my reviews to pick my favorites, I easily found almost 50 that I would watch a second time, or recommend to friends. I've tried to narrow this list down to 10 that were my favorite favorites, so to speak. I've noted the year of release and the month in which my review appears on the blog

AIR FORCE (1943/May): I liked this partly because it was the only time that one of my favorite minor supporting players, John Ridgely, got a starring role, but it's also one of the better "soldiers in isolation" war movies of the WWII period.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950/Dec): One of the first and still one of the best "heist" movies, with good writing, great acting (especially from Louis Calhern & Jean Hagen), and fine noirish direction from John Huston

BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938/March): One of my very favorite screwball comedies, despite some ludicrous plot weaknesses; Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper have great chemistry and get solid support from Edward Everett Horton and a very young David Niven. Sophisticated and witty at the beginning, slapsticky at the end, and fun all the way.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936/April): Despite the outdated colonialist politics, this is a rousing "Brits in India" film with romance, action, and criminally handsome leading men (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles). A notch below GUNGA DIN, perhaps, and just a smidge above BEAU GESTE.

CLEOPATRA (1934/Feb): Claudette Colbert was a surprise to me as a sexy and wily Cleopatra and Henry Wilcoxon is very good as Marc Antony. Heads and shoulders above the Elizabeth Taylor version of the 60's (May), although that film wasn't as bad as its reputation had led me to believe.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS (1934/Jan): I gained new respect for Clark Gable and Joan Crawford this year, mostly due to their 30's movies, and this one presents them together, showing off good acting and fine romantic chemistry. If you like the two of them, I would also highly recommend STRANGE CARGO (1940/Nov).

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944/March): Possibly my favorite Preston Sturges comedy, with Eddie Bracken as a mild-mannered guy who has been discharged from the Marines due to hay fever; a bunch of real Marines take pity on him and stage a hero's welcome for him in his home town, leading to much farcical misunderstanding.

OSSESSIONE (1943/Nov): Luchino Visconti's take on James Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and more compelling and sexier than the Lana Turner/John Garfield version of a few years later. The French film L'ATALANTE (1934/June) is another surpsisingly sensuous treat.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934/March): This was the year I discovered the movies of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, and this was my favorite of them, a delirious, almost avant-garde telling of the life of Catherine the Great. The physical look of the movie, from cinematography to set design to costumes, is stunning. Watch it on DVD if you can. I also very much enjoyed two other Dietrich films this year, SONG OF SONGS and DISHONORED.

THE SWIMMER (1968/Sept): An allegorical film about a man's midlife crisis. Burt Lancaster, clad for the entire film in only a pair of swimming trunks, swims through the pools of all of his well-heeled suburban neighbors and confronts some hard truths about his past and present. Occasionally mystifying and not for all tastes, but very interesting and challenging.

I could just as easily have included any of the following in my list: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE GOOD FAIRY, THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (perhaps Robert Young's best performance ever), THE GREAT GARRICK, NORA PRENTISS, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE, THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, and BLUES IN THE NIGHT. Some I liked mostly for strong supporting performances including DODSWORTH (Mary Astor), THIS LAND IS MINE (George Sanders), THE MIRACLE WOMAN (David Manners), and REMEMBER? (Lew Ayres). I enjoyed the over-the-top performance of Bette Davis in BEYOND THE FOREST, and I very much liked Paul Lukas in STRICTLY DISHONORABLE.

Two very good films I reviewed this year but that I had seen before were MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934/Dec) and NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940/Feb). Some fun B-movie discoveries were MY LOVE CAME BACK, THEY MADE HER A SPY, and HOT RHYTHM. Tomorrow, I'll present the worst of the year, and briefly discuss the best and worst of recent movies I saw this year.

Sunday, December 29, 2002


The quintessential WWII narrative propaganda film, made by playwright Noel Coward (with some directorial help from a young David Lean) during what I assume were some of England's darkest days. Right off, the film boldly proclaims itself to be "the story of a ship," and it is indeed based on a real ship, helmed by Lord Mountbatten. In the movie, we follow the HMS Torrin from its construction through its various wartime adventures, which include surviving an attack, picking up survivors from Dunkirk, and eventually its sinking at sea. The disjointed and episodic story is told in flashback, but not straightforwardly, which causes a bit of confusion in the beginning. We start with the final bombing of the ship and a group of survivors on a small lifeboat. Three men become the focus of the film: the captain (Noel Coward), Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and the youngest, Seaman Blake (John Mills). The story of their experiences on the ship are told in flashback, and their personal stories are flashbacks within flashbacks. Frankly, although all three men are given separate characteristics, they tend to blur together as stolid and admirable sailors who carry on with traditional British reserve. As the opening line suggests, the movie is at its strongest when it is indeed the story of the ship.

The first half is a little rough going, as we get used to the clever but complex narrative structure, but the dramatic events of the second half do build up some steam. Overall, it feels very much like Coward's earlier play and movie CAVALCADE (which won the Oscar for best picture in 1932-33); both are episodic, flag-waving celebrations of England during times of stress and change. The best scenes are all toward the end. When the ship transports the ragged survivors of Dunkirk back home, the shots of dozens of wounded men contain echoes of the famous wounded soldiers scene in GONE WITH THE WIND. In the most powerful scene, one character's wife and mother sit through an air raid, as they've become accustomed to doing, convinced that they can't really be hurt, but the tense scene does have a surprisingly tragic outcome. They get away with using some language that American films could never have used at the time ("damn," "hell," and "bastard"). The whole movie plays out an a much lower emotional pitch than a similar American WWII film would have. Among the homefront women, Celia Johnson is a standout as Coward's stalwart wife. Coward himself is the exact opposite of what you might expect given his racy drawing room comedies and the "sophisticated," effete persona he cultivated. A young Richard Attenborough can be glimpsed as a sailor who deserts his post and is dealt with compassionately by Coward. A little pedantic and slow is spots, but fairly rousing and dramatically engaging by the end.

Friday, December 27, 2002

NAVY BLUES (1929) and NAVY BLUES (1941)

The lesson today, class, is don't bother with any movie called NAVY BLUES. These movies are not related except that they are both torture to sit through, for different reasons. The first is an early talkie, the first talkie for William Haines, who in 1930 was voted top male box-office draw. In the silents, he specialized in playing smart-aleck wisecracker "juveniles" and that's the same type he plays here, although at almost 30 years of age, he had outgrown that type. He's a sailor who falls for an innocent girl (Anita Page); though he seems to genuinely love her, his plans don't include marriage. She, however, assumes otherwise and leaves her parents' home to prepare for her new life as Haines' wife. When Haines's ship leaves port, Page is left up a creek, so to speak. My attention wandered and I admit I lost the plot thread toward the end; I think, because she was too proud to go back to her folks, she was on the verge of becoming a fallen woman, but Haines returns in the nick of time, ready for marriage. In addition to being too old to play a carefree boyish sailor, Haines plays the character as an bizarre cross between a femme prankster and a heterosexual boor, and never comes off as very likeable. He does have one funny bit where he drops a napkin on the floor so he can reach down, look up a woman's skirt, and leeringly say, "Hello!" There's also an cute but too brief scene that appears to have actually been shot on an early version of a water rollercoaster. But unless you're a diehard Haines fan, there's not much here of interest.

However, the Haines movie is like GONE WITH THE WIND compared to the stultifyingly bad 1942 "musical comedy," and both of those words should be taken with grains of salt. It's not Ann Sheridan's fault; she's the best thing here, along with her sidekick Martha Raye. They play USO-type entertainers in Hawaii who get tangled up with some Navy men, Jack Oakie and Jack Haley (Haley plays Raye's ex who owes her alimony, always a fun and infinitely pliable plot point). Oakie and Haley are just terrible, wooden and unappealing throughout. Even Jack Carson, who I usually like, is wasted here, as are Jackie Gleason, John Ridgely, and Howard DaSilva. If Carson had Oakie's role, the movie might have been salvagable. The title song, co-authored by Johnny Mercer, is catchy; I was still humming it a few hours after the movie. The song provides the one high spot in the film, a production number with Sheridan (a little awkward in her dancing but still charming) and Raye, but it happens in the first ten minutes and everything else is downhill. Excruciating.

Thursday, December 26, 2002


I avoided watching this movie for a long time, but I'm very happy I finally did. Although I like mysteries and thrillers, and noir of the 40's (and the neo-noirs of the 70's and 80's), I'm not a big fan of 50's films or of the more "realistic" crime movies that sprang up in that decade. So, since I wasn't expecting much, this was a real joy to discover. The storyline is familar: an old man gets out of prison and decides to pull one last heist. He pulls a small gang together and the heist is carried off, but the forces of fate and justice conspire to bring all concerned to bad ends. In this case, the acting, writing, and direction are all top-notch, making this much more character-driven than I expected.

The focus (especially at the beginning and end) is on Sterling Hayden as a dull-witted "hooligan" with a gambling problem. The idea of a big jewlery robbery appeals to him as he plans to leave the big city (Chicago? Columbus? It seems to be set somewhere Cleveland and Lexington, Kentucky) and try to buy back the farm he grew up on. Jean Hagen is a revelation as his on-again, off-again girl. The character is tough but vulnerable, and Hagen is brave to do an emotional scene looking terrible, with mascara stains and a missing false eyelash. Sam Jaffe is the old doctor who masterminds the robbery, and James Whitmore and Marc Lawrence are good as peripheral hoodlums. The real standout in the cast in Louis Calhern (the ambassador in DUCK SOUP, and Buffalo Bill in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN) who I usually think of as playing stodgy businessmen. Here he is a big-shot lawyer in financial trouble who offers to bankroll the heist (despite being broke) and fence the jewels; he gets someone else to front the money, then plans to abscond with the haul. Calhern keeps a calm facade most of the time, but we see the sweaty desperation in his eyes, thanks to Calhern's great acting and John Huston's directing. In fact, the direction is subtle but stylish throughout. It's not exactly mainstream noir story material, but it has a sharp noir look, with lots of shadowy city streets and nighttime activity. In fact, it all seems to take place at night except for the great opening (a foggy big city dawn) and the sad closing with Hayden and Hagen thinking that maybe they've beaten fate as they arrive at the end of their road to buy the Kentucky farm. Brad Dexter (who just died this month) has a small but nice bit as a "muscle" man for Calhern, and Marilyn Monroe is good as Calhern's mistress, who calls him "Uncle" throughout, adding yet another creepy touch to the proceedings. This movie has continued to influence today's writers and directors (see THE USUAL SUSPECTS and RESERVOIR DOGS), and is pretty close to a crime-movie masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002


Last year at this time, I wrote about a dreadful TV adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic (1954, with Fredric March). This year, I felt the need to re-visit an older version, from MGM, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. The CAROLS with Alistair Sim (1951) and George C. Scott (for TV, 1984) are more well known and certainly both Sim and Scott make great Scrooges, but the Owen film has its own charms and shouldn't be overlooked by Scrooge fans. This one is short (around 70 minutes) and much lighter in tone than the dark 1951 film and the elaborate and occasionally heavy-handed version from 1984. I won't rehash the plot, but some differences should be pointed out. Owen plays Scrooge with much less heft than is usual; here, he seems more human and less "evil," though that could also be because the art direction is less dark and bleak. This lessens the impact of the transformation scene at the end, but Owen is still fun in the part. Most of the major setpieces from the original story are here (and much of the usual dialogue, too, about prisons and workhouses and being boiled in your own pudding), but there have been some revisions to the familiar plot. The movie opens with Scrooge's nephew engaging in some banter with the Cratchit children, who are playing sliding games down icy sidewalks; Scrooge fires Cratchit on Chrismas Eve because he playfully knocks Scrooge's hat off with a snowball; the subplot involving Scrooge's fiancee is missing completely. Gene Lockhart's real-life wife Kathleen and daughter June (later Lassie's "mom") have roles as Cratchits, and Anne Rutherford, Polly in the ANDY HARDY movies, is the Ghost of Christmas Past. As usual, Tiny Tim is a little too sweet and big-eyed, but overall, this is a well-paced and light-toned version of the classic that is sure to keep you in the Christmas mood.

Monday, December 23, 2002


The setting is Chinatown in 1911. Residents are split over the revolution that is happening back in China. Some are supporting the revolutionaries by sending money and supplies, while others, loyal to the Emperor, are taking measures to stop such aid. Lewis Stone is Dr. Dong Tong, who has already given all he can to the revolutionaries, but he is pressured to give more; there is a boatload of supplies ready to go but they need money to pay the captain and crew to take the boat to China. Stone's daughter, Helen Hayes, has fallen in love with young Tom Lee (Ramon Novarro), who we later discover is actually a revolutionary in exile (I think; this plotpoint was a bit blurry, but he's definitely a "good guy"). Stone approves of the match, but when the need to raise money becomes urgent, he decides he has to auction Hayes off as a bride to the highest bidder. She is shocked at first, but gives in to help her father. Warner Oland is a cruel Royalist who winds up buying Hayes. When she finds out that Oland is involved in some theft and murders that have affected her family, she exacts her own form of revenge.

The movie looks good, ripe with shadowy and exotic atmosphere. Virtually every major character is Chinese, but all are played by Caucasian actors. Once you get used to this, it actually works, except for Hayes; it never feels like she's really into the part, and to compensate, she overacts the general passivity of her character (until the last half when the character shows that she is made of stronger stuff). Navarro seems more vaguely "foreign" rather than Chinese, but he is handsome here and is very good, the best acting I've seen from him in a talkie. Ralph Morgan is the head of the "bad guys," H. B. Warner is the friend who pressures Stone into giving more money, and Louise Closser Hale is Hayes' mother figure. The real affront here for many modern viewers won't be the outdated use of non-Chinese actors, but the fact that Hayes is constantly apologizing to Stone for being a daughter rather than a son. I realize it's a reflection of real cultural values, but still it is bothersome when Hayes does take control near the end, she does it not as a strong woman, but as, in her words, a "son-daughter." If you can get past that, there is some old-fashioned charm and atmopshere to be had in this melodrama.

Sunday, December 22, 2002


Thanks to Todd Haynes' new movie FAR FROM HEAVEN, the glossy 50's melodramas of director Douglas Sirk are getting quite of bit of pop culture attention, this one in particular since the Haynes movie borrows so much from it, in terms of plot and visual style. Jane Wyman plays Cary, a resident in the New Englandish town of Stoningham, an upper-middle class community. Being past 40 and a widow, she seems a little disconnected from and perhaps stifled by her social circle. Her friends, including best buddy Agnes Moorehead, and her grown children (William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott) are trying to fix her up with Conrad Nagel, a perfectly respectable older man who is looking not for romance, but companionship. But Wyman winds up involved with hired landscaper Rock Hudson, who has three strikes against him as far as Wyman's friends and family are concerned: he's 15 years her junior, he's from a working-class background, and he's much more comfortable in nature than in country clubs or cocktail parties. The relationship is slow to grow, but once it does, Wyman becomes the subject of vicious gossip (mostly from the venomous Jacqueline De Wit). Her children subject her to tirades about her scandalous behavior, suggesting that she should be happy growing old in her lovely modern home, with a brand new TV set as her comfort. Wyman wavers about committing to Hudson with some typical soap opera results.

The reason to see this movie is the lovely use of color throughout: deep red (especially in the autumn leaves), icy blues, stark whites, pale violets. There is also a lot of blatant symbolism (the TV set, many scenes shot in mirrors or through windows, animals romping in nature), most of it reinforcing the dichotomy of the authenticity of nature vs. the artificiality and sterility of the suburban way of life. Moorehead gets to play a sympathetic character here for a change and she's very good. Charles Drake and Virginia Grey, minor character actors from the 30's and 40's, play friends of Hudson's, who of course are admirable and fully accepting of Wyman, in contrast to most of the townspeople. Wyman is fine, and Hudson is quite handsome and, well, healthy, though his character isn't as well developed as he could be. For a mainstream 50's movie, they are fairly open about the fact that Wyman and Hudson are having a physical relationship. The last shot, a Hallmark-card scene of a fawn in the snow framed by a huge picture window in Hudson's renovated mill (which winds up out-suburbaning Wyman's own living room) is a bit much. If you're going to see FAR FROM HEAVEN, this is required viewing first.

Thursday, December 19, 2002


A fairly minor but entertaining entry in the long-suffering-mothers genre of melodrama. The movie opens with Kay Francis as actress Stella Parish, about to open in London in her greatest triumph yet. She has carefully cultivated an air of mystery about herself in the press; she rarely socializes and is almost never photographed out of her stage makeup. As a favor to her manager and suitor (Paul Lukas), she agrees to attend an opening night party, but a shadowy figure from her past (Barton MacLane, who literally remains shadowy--we never actually see his face), shows up to threaten to expose some scandalous element from her past. She leaves London the next day, vanishing from public view, taking a passenger liner to the US. A reporter (Ian Hunter) runs into her by chance and even though Francis is in old-lady makeup and costume, he soon realizes who she is and what a story he has on his hands.

The scandal is that in her past, she was married to MacLane, and he killed a man who was flirting with her. She was charged as an accomplice and sent to prison, giving birth to a daughter behind bars. She is raising the daughter (well played by Sybil Jason) with the help of a relative (Jessie Ralph), but doesn't want the child to find out the details of her unsavory past. Hunter, while digging up the whole mess, finds himself falling in love with her and deciding to kill the story, but it leaks out anyway. And all this is just the first half of the movie! There are many more melodramatic plot turns before the relatively happy ending. Hunter, who was King Richard in the Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD and the Christ figure in STRANGE CARGO, has a rare lead role here and pulls it off nicely, striking a balance between mercenary reporter and smitten sensitive guy. Francis's "lisp" gets in the way of the illusion that she is a great classical actress who would take London by storm, but we don't actually see much of her on stage and otherwise she's fine; the scenes of her in disguise on ship are fun. Worth watching, especially for fans of Francis and 30's "women's pictures."

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Two Wartime B-Thrillers with James Craig

The phrase "big lug" was custom-made for James Craig. He never had much of a career in big studio movies; his biggest part was probably as the farmer who makes a deal with the devil in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. His strength was in the realm of the B-film. He was handsome, occasionally resembling Clark Gable, though he's not a great actor, nor a great romancer. But if the role called for strong and sturdy and silent, he fits the bill. The following are two Craig movies which also happen to be, to varying degrees, WWII propaganda movies, one near the beginning of the war and one at the end.

SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ (1942): Despite weak characterizations and some wildly predictable plot twists, this was enjoyable. Craig and a buddy (Frank Jenks) break out of Alcatraz just after Pearl Harbor, partly out of a fear that the island prison makes them sitting ducks for a Japanese air invasion. The two wind up on a tiny lighthouse island and they intend to take the inhabitants (including Bonita Granville and Cliff Edwards) hostage, but soon get wrapped up with German spies carrying war secrets who are waiting for a sub. Throughout the movie, connections are made between the criminals and the Nazis, and because Craig is top-billed, you know he'll turn over a new leaf by the end. Craig doesn't have his mustache here, and he's handsomer without it. His acting even seems a little less heavy-handed than usual. Granville doesn't register much, but she doesn't have a lot to do except gradually fall for Craig. John Banner, who played Sgt. Schultz on "Hogan's Heroes," is one of the Nazis--I never would have recognized him. Frank Jenks had a little more exposure a few years later as Dennis Morgan's sailor buddy in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

DANGEROUS PARTNERS (1945): This thriller is interesting for the moral ambiguity that surrounds the male and female leads, right up until the end. Signe Hasso and her husband chase down a man (Edmund Gwenn) who is going around the country collecting on wills made out to him. James Craig, a shysterish lawyer, is also on Gwenn's trail, hoping to blackmail him for a murder he suspects Gwenn of committing. Hasso and Craig join forces, both for greedy purposes. Of course, when they find out that Gwenn is not just a crook but also evil (imagine Kris Kringle as a Nazi!!), they come to a moral fork in the road. The opening scene, played out in the desert at a plane crash site, is quite atmospheric, but in terms of look and style, the rest of the movie goes downhill. In addition to Gwenn, there are some good performances from some interesting supporting players: Felix Bressart (James Stewart's friend in SHOP AROUND THE CORNER), Audrey Totter, and Warner Anderson. Hasso doesn't have much going for her here except for her Nordic looks and intense stare. The propaganda elements are lightly laid on at the end--you know that Craig and Hasso will eventually do the patriotic thing, but it takes right up til the end for them to make that decision.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002


It seems that the sole reason for the making of this movie was for Universal to get some more use out of the sets that had been built for the Technicolor remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA the year before. This, also in color, is a lovely looking film, but it certainly is a huge disappointment as a horror film (as which it is falsely marketed); it doesn't even really amount to much as melodrama. Boris Karloff plays the house physician to a Viennese opera company; he is hopelessly in love with a much younger singer (June Vincent). When he demands that she give up her singing career for him, she breaks off their relationship and he kills her, though to the world, it seems that she mysteriously vanishes just before she was to give an important royal command performance. Karloff keeps her body preserved in a chamber beneath his quarters at the opera house (a device that is echoed years later in the Dr. Phibes movies). Ten years later, a promising singer (Susanna Foster) is on a fast track to divahood; Karloff hears her and is convinced that Vincent's voice has returned through Foster, so he uses hypnosis to make her think she's lost her voice so she too will give up her career. Foster's boyfriend (Turhan Bey) and Vincent's loyal maid (Gale Sondergaard) try to find out what's wrong so that Foster will be able to give her own royal command performance.

The lush and colorful sets cannot stand in for all that's missing here. Except for the murder of Vincent at the beginning, the movie just isn't very scary. The plotline following Vincent's death is a bit convoluted; Karloff doesn't really ever stand a chance romantically with Foster, so his motivation for trying to silence her is a bit shaky, except for the vague and even silly idea of voice reincarnation. Karloff is fine, as usual, even with such mediocre material, but Foster and Bey are lifeless. The best performance is by Sondergaard, nicely underplaying a role that feels like it was inspired by Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA. An actress named Jane Farrar (who was also in the '43 PHANTOM) has a couple of nice moments as a bitchy diva who feels threatened by the up-and-coming Foster. There are way too many operetta excerpts, though the climax, involving an onstage performance and a deadly fire, is pulled off well.

Sunday, December 15, 2002


Marlene Dietrich in the middle of her delirious von Sternberg period, except this one was directed by Rouben Mamoulian. It doesn't have quite the visual flair that von Sternberg would have brought to the material, but the plotline and several individual scenes (particularly the opening) bring to mind films like BLONDE VENUS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Dietrich plays Lily, an innocent young orphan girl, semingly quite unaware of her good looks, who comes to the big city to live with her gruff and mercenary aunt (Alison Skipworth) who runs a bookstore, which is rendered quite wonderfully as a cluttered but oddly inviting place. She becomes infatuated with a sophisticated sculptor (Brian Aherne) who lives across the street and up a few flights. Soon, she is sneaking out of her bedroom to model nude for him, and they wind up having an affair. He finishes the statue of her, but Lionel Atwill (in his gruff Prussian mode) falls for her and manages to get her away from the artist (by convincing Aherne that he doesn't really want to give up his freedom by settling down) and the aunt (paying her to throw Dietrich out of her home so when the artist dumps her, she'll have nowhere to go except into Atwill's arms). They marry but she is miserable and winds up a prostitute, singing naughty songs in nightclubs, though from the audience, not the stage. In the end, she and the artist do wind up together, but only after she destroys her statue.

I'm sure that somewhere in all that is an allegory about art and love and the creative process, but it's not terribly clear to me. Like most of the collaborations between Dietrich and von Sternberg, the ravishing surfaces are the important elements here. We never see Dietrich naked, but we do see plenty of nude female statues, so much so that I imagine the movie wouldn't pass muster on most broadcast TV stations today. The statue of Dietrich reminds me of the Maria robot in METROPOLIS. In one startlingly erotic scene, Aherne stands facing the nearly-finished statue and kneads the clay of the shoulders while staring at the naked Dietrich. He comes *this close* to massaging the statue's explicitly carved breasts; the scene is far sexier than many if not most modern sex scenes despite the absence of physical contact. Hardie Albright (Barbara Stanwyck's commie boyfriend in RED SALUTE) plays a riding instructor who falls for Dietrich while she's married to Atwill. The look of the movie is lush, though not quite as luminous as the von Sternberg movies. Dietrich's wide-eyed innocence and timidity at the beginning (a bit over the top, perhaps) remind me of Dietrich at the beginning of SCARLET EMPRESS, and the use of nature in the first scene is reminiscent of the opening of BLONDE VENUS. Though this film doesn't seem to have the reputation some of her earlier and later films, it is interesting, sexy, and worth watching.

Friday, December 13, 2002


One of the last of the pre-Code crime-of-passion melodramas, set (unnecessarily) in Paris. Adolph Menjou plays a well-known playwright who is married to Ruth Chatterton but is having a rather public dalliance with the star of his latest play, Claire Dodd. In a well-played and well-shot opening scene, Chatterton hides in the shadows by a theater stage door and sees Menjou and Dodd proclaim their love. He tells Dodd he will ask his wife for a divorce, but when he goes home that night, he can't go through with it. Chatterton asks her lawyer about her options and decides she can't stop him from leaving (if he actually gets up the gumption to do so). So she goes to the theater and shoots Dodd dead during a rehearsal. However, a bank robber (Noel Madison) who has already killed a teller, escapes into the theater at that moment and is arrested for Dodd's murder. Menjou discovers the truth and writes in a diary about his predictions that his wife will eventually crack and confess to the crime. She does crack, though the circumstances wind up a little messier than Menjou predicted for all concerned. For an hour-long movie with a number of soap opera twists, it lags more often than it should. Chatterton is OK, but Dodd, in her few early scenes, has more personality. The supporting cast includes Douglas Dumbrille and George Barbier, and in a very small role, Jane Darwell. Noel Madison makes the most of his relatively few scenes as the bank robber, who winds up being perhaps the most interesting character in the movie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


The plotline of this film feels a bit tired and cliche now, but may well have been original back in '34. Nevertheless, the movie still works quite well, mainly due to the superb acting. I can't quite put my finger on why, but the acting feels very modern for its time, like it has more common with films of the 40's rather than the tail-end of the pre-Code era. The plot concerns two guys who have been friends since childhood, Blackie (Clark Gable) and Jim (William Powell), and the different paths their lives take. We first see them as kids, involved in a terrible boat fire which kills their parents. They are taken in first by a Jewish man who lost his own son in the fire and later by a Catholic priest (Leo Carillo). Jim becomes a lawyer and eventually district attorney; Blackie becomes a shady but shrewd quasi-underworld figure, making money through gambling. Eleanor (Myrna Loy) is Blackie's girl, but even though they live high off the hog, she tires of the gangster life and leaves Blackie for Jim; the scene where she is stood up by Blackie and winds up spending the night (so to speak) with Jim is a high point.

The two men have remained friends, with great respect for each other, and even the romantic entanglement doesn't break them apart. What does threaten to is when Blackie kills an informer with political connections who is trying to mess up Jim's run for governor. Jim has to try Blackie for murder, not knowing that Blackie actually comitted the murder with Jim's best interests in mind. In the last third, the movie's themes of love, ethics, and loyalty are brought to the front and provide a strong finish. All three leads are very good; in fact, aside from GONE WITH THE WIND, this might be Gable's best role ever. Both Powell and Gable were nominated for Oscars in '34, but not for this movie. Gable won for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and Powell was up for THE THIN MAN; both are good performances, but these overlooked ones are at least as good. Mickey Rooney has a small part in the beginning playing Blackie as a kid. Definitely one to catch, especially if you're a fan of any of the lead trio.

Friday, December 06, 2002


Ogden Nash is credited as a screenwriter on this film but I certainly don't see evidence of his wit here. A passel of good actors is mostly wasted on this soap opera with underdeveloped characterization. Joan Crawford is a dancer whose suitor is the "gentleman farmer" Melvyn Douglas. The mood in the beginning is fairly light as Crawford finally gives in to the persistent Douglas and agrees to marry him even though she does not love him. Douglas' brother, Robert Young, happens to arrive for a visit the night they announce their engagement. He expresses official family disapproval, but the marriage happens anyway and Douglas takes Crawford to live with him at the family compound. Margaret Sullavan is Young's wife and Fay Bainter is the boys' sister, a neurotic spinster who sort of runs the family. It turns out that Young never really loved Sullavan and has fallen in love with Crawford, who, of course, doesn't really love Douglas. On the night that Douglas' new house is finished, things come to a melodramatic head with a fire, injuries, and heroics. The actors are all fine, but they aren't given much to work with in terms of motivation. 20 years later, this might have been an interesting Faulkneresque drama along the lines of THE LONG HOT SUMMER (or even Crawford's QUEEN BEE), but too much is left unsaid here. Allyn Joslyn plays Crawford's manager and former romantic interest who drops out fairly early. Frank Albertson has a dopey juvenile role here even though he was clearly getting too old for that kind of part. Hattie McDaniel has basically one nice scene as Crawford's maid, then disappears. Bainter's character has the most potential, but also winds up the most ambiguously presented. One funny line has someone saying about Bainter after she's quoted the Bible, "One of these days, we're going to put her in all the hotel rooms."

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Hercules and Tarzan

Before I'm ready to give up on the Thanksgiving theme of the last few days, I decided I needed to devote a short entry to a couple of my boyhood fantasy heroes whose movies might have been shown over the holiday weekend back in the day:

HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961)--This is one of the more well-regarded sword and sandal epics of the 60's. Mario Bava, who later made a name for himself in horror films, directed this atmospheric entry in the Hercules series. Reg Park plays the strongman who ventures into the Underworld to save the life of Princess Deianira, who is trapped in a state between life and death. Christopher Lee plays the villain, the evil Lyco, who attempts to engage in vampire-like behavior as he's been promised eternal life if he partakes of the blood of the princess. Herc has Theseus, a bleach-blond beach boy, as his sidekick; he gets into trouble because he can't leave the ladies alone. Also along for some lame comic relief is the nerdy Telemachus. While they're all aboveground, the proceedings are about par for the course for this kind of movie: bad dubbing, cheap effects (involving lots of boulder-throwing), and lots of episodic action involving Hercules getting everyone else out of hot water. But the Underworld is nicely photographed in deep shades of blue and green, even if the effects (including a very silly stone giant clearly made of cardboard) sometimes leave something to be desired. The widescreen version on DVD is 100 times better than the faded pan and scan versions one usually runs across. We never really get to see Lee get vampiric, but he looks younger, stronger, and more robustly evil than he ever did in most of his Hammer movies.

TARZAN THE APE MAN (1959)--Clearly the producers of this remake of the classic 1932 Johnny Weissmuller adventure film had a burning question to answer here: what if Tarzan had been a blond frat boy with a little baby fat on his face, but a killer surfer torso? Denny Miller, who plays Tarzan, was in fact a UCLA basketball star when MGM signed him to an acting contract. Miller is not very good here, not even managing to do very convincing vine swinging, but to be fair, he is hardly the worst thing in the movie. In fact, the word "inept" does not do this production justice. Much of the film consists of badly matched stock footage of animals in Africa, and badly tinted scenes of Weissmuller from the original film. The crocodile fight involves some footage from TARZAN AND HIS MATE that has been not only tinted but ridiculously sped up. It's difficult to pick a most ludicrous moment, but it might be Tarzan fighting a leopard that, for the most part, is clearly a giant stuffed toy (think Bela Lugosi and the rubber octopus in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER), and close-ups of its face show a very non-scary puppet. All the characters are fairly despicable, even Joanna Barnes as Jane who whines constantly about not having enough money to catch a man back in London. (Barnes played spoiled rich girl Gloria Upson in AUNTIE MAME and Jane might well be Gloria a few years after graduation.) My guilty pleasure admission: I had a bit of a crush on Miller when I was a teenager after I saw pictures of him in a book on movie Tarzans. I was glad to finally see this, but I can't in all honesty recommend it to any other living soul over the age of 12. Even the chimp is strictly B-talent.

Sunday, December 01, 2002


I approached this, the last of my Thansgiving children's fantasy movies, with some trepidation. In my memory, it was part and parcel of the "epic" 60's fantasies like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and JACK THE GIANT KILLER. It's been my experience that when I revisit those movies, I'm always disappointed. Even when Ray Harryhausen is in charge of the special effects, I find the films drab, poorly acted, and difficult to sit through. However, this one, not a Harryhausen film, was a surprising treat. Most of the critical commentary I found on this film is negative, but I liked it more than any Harryhausen film I've seen. The effects aren't as good, that's for sure, but CAPTAIN SINDBAD has moderately better acting, more interesting sets, great color cinematography, and is just in general a great deal of fun. Guy Williams (best known as the dad on "Lost in Space") is Sindbad, returning home to marry his beloved Princess (a lovely German actress named Heidi Bruhl), but stymied by the wicked pretender to the throne, Pedro Armendariz, who is himself being assisted unwillingly by the royal wizard, Abraham Sofaer. The plot consists of Sindbad trying to lead a revolt against Armendariz, and eventually heading to a dangerous tower where the wicked king magically keeps his heart so he can be invulnerable to physical attack.

Many of the magic effects are nicely done, particularly the opening scene with the wizard conjuring up rain, thunder, and snow in his chamber. In a rather titilating scene, especially considering the young male audience at which this must have been aimed, he turns the princess into a "firebird," and she has to strip in order to undergo the transformation. When the bad king has the bird in his clutches and it turns back into a miniature naked princess, I was reminded of King Kong holding Fay Wray. Of course, for every good effect, there is a bad one: the King's disembodied heart looks like a pulsating box of Valentine's candy; an attempt to replicate a Harryhausen effect in a swordfight with a menacing Hydra-like creature fails miserably--I'm sure even as a kid, I would have groaned during this scene. The colors, especially the reds, blues, and purples, are rich and the sets, a mix of miniature and full-size, are quite effective. I also enjoyed an acrobatic and oddly sexy spider dance with a scantily clad man and woman swinging through the air, bouncing off gigantic spider webs. Other than that, there is not a lot of beefcake on display here; Williams is beefy and looks heroic, but he remains fully clothed, unlike the heroes of some of the other adventure movies of my youth. A big plus was the fact that most of the dialogue didn't appear to be post-dubbed--if it was, it was done very well. This is hardly a masterpiece, but it held my adult attention and it has now surpassed JASON as my favorite pre-70's fantasy epic.