Saturday, March 30, 2002


Hiding behind this drab, generic title is a charming little romantic comedy with the trappings of farce (multiple misconceptions about characters and motivations) and the atmosphere of a musical, although it's not a musical or a farce. If this Warner Brothes picture had been done at MGM with Rooney and Garland, it would have fit right in with the "Babes" series. Olivia de Havilland plays a violin student studying at a conservatory; low on money, she decides to leave school and join a swing orchestra with her friends Eddie Albert and Jane Wyman. Charles Winninger, a rich patron of the school, takes a shine to de Havilland and subsidizes her education, laundering the money through Jeffrey Lynn, the manager of his business. The head of the school, Grant Mitchell, lets her believe that the money is from a scholarship. Soon, of course, farcical complications involving Winninger, his wife (Spring Byington), his son (William T. Orr) and Lynn arise.

This may have been one of the earliest movies with a "swing vs.classical" theme, which leads to a couple of fun numbers where the band swings Liszt and Mendelssohn. The cast is great fun throughout. Albert and Wyman are especially good. S. Z. Sakall, playing a stuffed-shirt conductor, appears in one of his first American movies. Jeffrey Lynn is the best I've ever seen him--his hopped-up look is downplayed and he makes a perfectly fine romantic leading man for de Havilland. A very entertaining piece of fluff. I have absolutely no idea what the title has to do with the movie!

Thursday, March 28, 2002


This is an odd little movie. It feels like a long Twilight Zone episode without any hint of the supernatural or sci-fi. Like some of Rod Serling's stories, it is rather preachy with lots of stilted dialogue and obvious speechmaking that stops the action dead in its tracks. Nevertheless, it was worth watching. Based on a story by Nathaniel West ("Day of the Locust"), it's about a fledgling reporter (Montgomery Clift) who takes a job as a "Miss Lonelyhearts" columnist under a cynical and mean-spirited editor (Robert Ryan). Ryan tries his best to "educate" Clift in the ways of the world--the fact that people *lie* seems to be the main lesson he wants to impart. Maureen Stapleton got an Oscar nomination for her part as a bored and lonely housewife who writes to Clift and eventually meets him. Myrna Loy plays Ryan's wife, a completely beaten-down and empty person--in some ways, she reminded me of the Alison Janney character in AMERICAN BEAUTY (the wife who walks around like she's in a coma) although not quite as scarily passive.

The film is wildly misogynistic; all the women in the movie are presented as whores (metaphorically speaking) except for Dolores Hart, Clift's girlfriend, who is a saint. I read that this was Clift's first movie after his terrible car accident; he looks fine, but he doesn't always seem to be altogether there. Robert Ryan is very good, especially given that his character is one-note and his dialogue is wildly artifical. Loy is fine, and I felt the sorriest for her character, largely because of her performance. Although the movie has a leisurely pace, the ending feels a bit rushed and strains for an upbeat tone. Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester on "The Addams Family" and a big juvenile star in the 20's, especially in Chaplin's THE KID) has a small part.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002


This is an interesting pre-Code film based on a Philip Barry play. Since I liked HOLIDAY and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY so much, I figured I'd like this and I did, but it's the weakest of the three Barry movies I've seen. Leslie Howard is a publisher of fine art and philosophy books who is about to marry Myrna Loy when his old friend and occasional lover (and free soul) Ann Harding turns up more or less out of the blue and expresses interest in getting married and having a child. It's interesting that it's the desire for a child, not necessarily "true love" that makes her propose to Howard. Howard says no but wants to remain friends--Harding can't face that, so she breaks things off.

Soon, Loy is trying to run Howard's life by getting him away from his somewhat bohemian friends and pushing him to publish crappy but popular books to make more money. Harding re-enters his life and Howard has to make important decisions involving his women and his career. Loy and Howard are both good--Loy especially is sexy and conniving. In one scene, she gets Howard to stay home with her by nuzzling his neck while wearing a remarkably revealing negligee. There's a wonderful scene near the end where she implies that she will have sex with him in order to give him a child if he will sell his business for a great deal of money. Howard catches on and basically treats her like a whore. For a 30's movie, the unsavory connection is remarkably clear; I'm sure it couldn't have been if it had been made just a few years later. Harding was the weak link. Maybe because it's a Barry play, I kept imagining Katharine Hepburn in the role; she certainly would have been more lively than the wooden, stagy Harding, who I found difficult to believe as a bohemian. William Gargan is Howard's butler and sort of the moral center of the film. Ilka Chase is fun in a fairly small part as a friend of Loy's.

Tuesday, March 26, 2002


Despite its title and year of release, this is not a war picture. It tells the story of the discovery of the pressurized suits that pilots used when flying in their bombers. If it can be said to belong to any genre, it would be medical-science melodrama, with male bonding in place of opposite-sex romance (despite the brief presence of the lovely Alexis Smith). Errol Flynn plays a cocky Navy doctor who goes into research, trying to find a solution for the dangers of pilots blacking out at very high altitudes. Fred MacMurray is his nemesis, a pilot who thinks that Flynn's bad judgment was responsible for the death of his buddy. The two wind up reconciled, partly due to the efforts of Ralph Bellamy. Regis Toomey is a doomed pilot; Allen Jenkins provides some ill-timed comic relief with various escapades involving hiding from his shrieking harpy of a wife, Dennie Moore, who reminded me of Bewitched's Gladys Kravitz. Lots of good flying footage and nice use of Technicolor, but a little too predictable.

Sunday, March 24, 2002


This is a light comedy-fantasy that might have benefitted from the Capra touch. Lee Tracy plays a man in his 30's who owns a small cigar store and is apparently barely making ends meet for himself and his wife (Mae Clarke). In the shop one day, he runs into an old friend (Otto Kruger) who has become rich and successful as a bank president. He offers to invest Tracy's savings to make him some quick money, but Clarke doesn't want to risk it. Drunk and pissed off, Tracy is hit by a car and he slips into a coma and dreams of what his life might have been like if he had taken the right path and become rich and famous, essentially trading life situations with Kruger with the knowledge of coming historical events, like WWI and the Depression . Of course, like in WIZARD OF OZ, he learns: 1) be careful what you wish for; you might get it!, 2) there's no place like home (above a cigar store with Mae Clarke).

The dream life is realistically portrayed until toward the end when it becomes a nightmarish fantasy sequence. One touch that seems right out of a Capra movie involves the rich Tracy pledging a million dollars for WWI servicemen to draw on when they return home from the front. I don't usually like Tracy, but his character is much more likeable here than in most of the other movies of his that I've seen. My one complaint about him is that he's really too old, even with makeup, to look right in the scenes where he's supposed to be 20 again. One other minor OZ connection: Clara Blandick (Aunt Em) and Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) both have small parts in the movie.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

PICNIC (1955); Or, My 50's Problem

I wonder why I find it relatively easy to accept 30's and 40's movie conventions, but I have such a hard time opening myself up to 50's movies? Inge and Williams and Faulkner all wrote material that exposed the repressed longings of everyday (or regional or small-town) Americans, and I guess that was considered new and shocking back then. For me, these movies don't hold up well now. The psychological depths feel rather shallow, the novelties of the widescreen and full color techniques are no longer novel. And the acting seems so overheated, so melodramatic; perhaps it was the screen discovering Method acting, or something like that. But many 50's films just grate on my last nerve. This is one of those.

William Holden is a drifter who arrives in a small Kansas town, just in time for the big doings at the Labor Day picnic. He comes seeking a job from his successful fraternity brother, Cliff Robertson, and he gets tangled up with Robertson's reluctant fiancee, Kim Novack. Things remain at a simmer until that night when Rosalind Russel, playing a spinster schoolteacher (small towns were apparently full of those back then), gets tipsy and sets off a chain reaction of exploding passions. This all may have felt daring back then, suggesting that not all heartland families were like Andy Hardy's, but it's hopelessly dated now.

I liked both Holden and Novak; Russell was over the top, but it seems like an impossible role to start with--the repressed schoolteacher is played mostly for laughs, but suddenly in the middle of the movie, she becomes the catalyst for all the roiling passions to boil over, and the scene where she tears Holden's shirt is just silly (mostly because of the ridiculously dramatic music that accents it). My biggest problem was with the ages of the characters. Novak is supposed to be 19--she was really 22 and looked about 25. Holden and Cliff Robertson are supposed to be roughly the same age, a few years out of college, but Holden (in his mid-30's) looked much older than Robertson. I will say that Holden was in damn good shape, which is a good thing given that he spends half of his screen time shirtless. This overblown soap opera reminded me at times of THE MUSIC MAN without irony, humor, or music--the disreputable Holden (Harold Hill) drifts into town, stirs up trouble (with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Picnic) and gets caught up with the confused girl (Marion the repressed librarian). Still, I found this worth watching mostly for Novak.

Saturday, March 16, 2002


Though I don't number James Cagney as one of my very favorite actors, I usually find his presence makes a movie worth watching. This, however, is surely one of his lesser films. He seemed to be operating at half-energy throughout--maybe he was conserving his energy for YANKEE DOODLE DANDY which he did a year or so later. The plot combines elements of THE FRONT PAGE and RED DUST; Pat O'Brien, head of a powerful banana company stationed in Latin America, tries to trick old buddy Cagney into coming back into the fold. One problem with this situation is that they don't have much chemistry here; their friendship never seems very believeable. The RED DUST element comes from the character of Ann Sheridan, as a singer who O'Brien tries to have deported (apparently for loose morals, but her charaxter isn't developed well enough for us to know that). She falls for Cagney (who is tied up temporarily with upper-class Helen Vinson); he helps Sheridan out and eventually falls for her. Sheridan is not terribly convincing as a shady dame, but she looks great and has some snappy one-liners aimed at Vinson; otherwise, the movie is slow going. George Tobias (Abner Kravitz on BEWITCHED) and George Reeves are improbably cast as natives, but their very improbability actually makes them fun to watch. Only for die-hard Cagney fans. The only other Cagney film that I have liked less is THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D.

Friday, March 15, 2002


Preston Sturges is very hit-and-miss with me. I've enjoyed some of the films he's directed and/or written (THE PALM BEACH STORY, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, REMEMBER THE NIGHT), but others have left me cold (MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, CHRISTMAS IN JULY, EASY LIVING). Part of it is due to my love/hate thing with screwball comedies. MIRACLE, which I'd heard so much about, was especially disappointing, but I enjoyed this one quite a bit; given the presence of Eddie Bracken, the military, a small town, and a wayward romance, this often feels like MIRACLE'S smarter brother.

Bracken plays a mild-mannered guy who, during WWII, tries to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by joining the Marine Corps. He is discharged quickly due to chronic hay fever, but can't bring himself to return to his small town and be a disappointment his mother. One evening, he buys drinks for a group of broke Marines on furlough--they take pity on him and concoct a tall tale to tell his mother about his heroism. They decide to escort him home by train and when they arrive, all hell breaks loose. The whole town has turned out to "hail the conquering hero." From there, the situation snowballs until he is thrust into the position of running for mayor based solely on his supposed heroics. There's also an ex-girlfriend and her fiance (son of the current mayor) to contend with.

The movie is played at a screwball pace (though not quite as fast as MIRACLE), but the romance plot winds up being secondary to the rest. Bracken is great, as is William Demerest as the sergeant who does the most to get Bracken in deeper and deeper. Franklin Pangborn does a variation on his usual flustered and frustrated type. Raymond Walburn is very good as the mayor (although we're supposed to want Bracken to run against him and beat him, he really isn't seen as such a bad fellow) and Ella Raines is fine as the girlfriend. Lots of things get satrical jabs, including patriotism, romance, motherhood, politics, and small towns. From a current day standpoint, there's nothing too terribly subversive here, but considering it was released at the height of WWII, I'm amazed Sturges got away with so much. It does have a fairly traditional ending that salvages the idea of heroism and allows the town and Bracken to save face. Overall, quite enjoyable.

Thursday, March 14, 2002


At last, a full-blooded screwball comedy I can love! I've never heard much about this movie; it seems to fly under the critical radar. Most of the movie guides I consulted didn't like it much. I've discussed my love/hate relationship with screwball comedies here before (see Wednesday, December 19, 2001). In some ways, this resembles one of my least favorite movies, the archetypal screwball comedy BRINGING UP BABY, with the heroine pestering the hero to death until he finally gives in, but in BLUEBEARD, I can understand better why she's doing the pestering.

Gary Cooper is a millionaire businessman visiting the French Riviera. When he raises a ruckus by stubbornly and obnoxiously insisting on buying just pajama tops at a clothing store, Claudette Colbert steps in to offer to buy the bottoms. Cooper is immediately taken with her and begins a whirlwind courtship. Her father, Edward Everett Horton (at his best in a very Prussian buzz cut and mustache) is titled but out of money and Cooper basically attempts to buy her from Horton. This, of course, disturbs Colbert, who also finds out that she will be Cooper's 8th wife, a fact Cooper thinks is unimportant. She goes through with the marriage but gets back at Cooper by withholding sex; if he can treat their relationship as a business transaction, so can she! She vows to make him miserable and to wind up being the worst investment he's ever made.

The screwball tactic of mixing love and irritation works well here, and I think it's mostly due to Colbert's underplaying. It's actually fun to see Cooper get emotional occasionally, contradicting his usual quiet and stoic persona. At one point, he lets out with a piercing war whoop in joy. Toward the end, he's institutionalized (a plot point that works better here than in LOVE CRAZY) and has to be put in a straitjacket, leading to a climactic (in more ways than one) sight gag. Ernst Lubitsch directed and his touch is in evidence in several places, including some nice bits for supporting players, and a few scenes that don't really advance the plot but are lots of fun (for example, a scene at the asylum where a man seems to be cured of thinking he's a chicken). A young and attractive David Niven plays another admirer of Colbert's and Franklin Pangborn is in high dudgeon as a hotel manager. There are lots of one-liners and many wonderful scenes with Colbert and Cooper; this, along with the 1934 CLEOPATRA, has given me a newfound appreciation of Colbert. Highly recommended!

Saturday, March 09, 2002

Two Ann Sheridan B-Movies

I should have learned my lesson with FOUR'S A CROWD about B-level screwball comedies, but Ann Sheridan lured me in. Although it's rather tedious and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, Sheridan does make it worth watching. The initial set-up is like MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, with George Brent as a famous writer lecturing in an Ohio city (Cleveland) and Sheridan in the Bette Davis part as his secretary; in this case, the two are romantically involved and the plot hinges on an old college flame throwing a wrench into their romance. The underdeveloped plot isn't worth much more comment, but Charlie Ruggles steals every scene he's in, and Jane Wyman and Lee Patrick add color in supporting parts.

In this one, Sheridan plays a nurse who has a thing for a detective (Patric Knowles); together, the two solve the murder of a rich patient and the theft of the valuable radium that had been used in his treatment. A very light touch and a running time of an hour made this quite bearable. It's not nearly as good as the previous film with the same characters (WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT, with Aline McMahon and Guy Kibbee playing the characters very differently), and it's not nearly as atmospheric as a mystery in a hospital should be. Knowles and Sheridan are both easy on the eyes.

Thursday, March 07, 2002


TCM unearthed this RKO B-musical during their Oscar salute month because it was nominated for a sound engineering award. Otherwise, it's hardly award material. It was very hard to find any information about this movie from the usual reference sources, which led me to expect a dismal bomb, but it turned out to be a pleasant and unpretentious comedy with music (it's not really a full-fledged musical, though it has a few numbers in a Broadway setting).

Anne Shirley (who I just saw as the daughter in STELLA DALLAS) plays a singer who, with her friends, is struggling to keep a Broadway musical revue running. Dennis Day is her wimpy leading man on stage (and her boyfriend off stage); he's an Irish tenor with a squeaky speaking voice who has his masculinity made fun of throughout. Through some creaky plot mechanics, she gets mistaken by the press for the "secret bride" of a recently returned war hero (Phillip Terry) and the rest of the movie tells how: 1) she saves the show, and 2) how she and the hunky hero fall in love. Raymond Walburn is fun as a music professor who is helping to back the show and Jane Darwell (who looked 65 all of her life, it seems) plays Terry's supposedly sickly mother, who looks as healthy as a horse. I just saw Terry as Ray Milland's brother in LOST WEEKEND, and he's completely different here--he's easy on the eyes and is good if not great as a light comic leading man. I don't know why he didn't do more films like this. The title is totally generic. The musical numbers can't compare to those that RKO mounted for Astaire, but they're clever and pleasing nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 05, 2002


The juiciest of the collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, this truly is one of the strangest movies to ever come out of a major studio. The storyline, of the rise of Catherine the Great of Russia, though not exactly ignored, is almost secondary to the rich visual feast constantly displayed on screen. Much of the time, this felt like an avant-garde movie. Occasionally, it reminded me of VAMPYR, as the narrative's power comes not from dialogue or exposition, but other elements like images, the "choreography" of the actors, and the music. Scarely a moment goes by that doesn't have blaring music (including Wagner and Tchaikovsky) and stunning camerawork.

Dietrich is Catherine, a German princess (I think; I wasn't clear on where she came from) who is chosen to be the wife of Peter III, an "idiot" who will take the throne when his mother dies. Catherine's job is to give Peter a son, but they never consummate the marriage. In the beginning, Catherine has high ideals about being a wife, but after getting pushed around by the Empress and ignored by her husband, she learns how to build her own power base (largely by sleeping with practically the entire Russian army). She provides a male heir (fathered by a soldier), but when she realizes that her own standing and indeed her life itself are in danger, she takes steps to get rid of Peter.

The narrative is always coherent, due partly to the occasional title card that explains what's happening. There are long stretches when there is little or no dialogue; the images really tell the story. An opening montage, where Catherine (as a child) is told horrifying stories of the brutality of past Russian rulers, is stunning, both for the fairly explicit scenes of torture and the bizarre transition at the end, looking up the skirts of the adult Catherine as she sails back and forth on a gigantic swing. The palace sets are lush, filled with carvings (often on the furniture itself) of grotesque and oversized human figures and shot with lots of light and shadows. Sam Jaffe, as Peter III, looks like the idiot child of Harpo Marx and Rose Marie. Dietrich is fabulous, coming off as wide-eyed and innocent in the beginning, and wise, crafty, and sensuous by the end (it's obvious how much Madonna has been influenced by Dietrich's look and manner in this film). The rather hunky John Lodge plays her first post-marriage lover and Louise Dresser is fun as the obnoxious mother. The finale, with dozens of men on horses stampeding around inside the palace, is truly almost a sexual climax. There's lots more to say about the movie, but nothing can substitute for the delirious experience of seeing it.

Friday, March 01, 2002

REMEMBER? (1939)

This is a cute little comedy of romantic reconciliation with a rather silly gimmick (an amnesia potion), but a cast strong enough to carry it over its rough spots. It's not manic enough to be screwball, but some of screwball's plot conventions show up. Lew Ayres goes on vacation and meets Greer Garson; they fall in love, return home, and decide to marry. All that happens before the movie's first scene, which has Ayres arranging for his best friend (and co-worker) Robert Taylor to meet Garson over lunch. Somewhat improbably, Taylor and Garson fall for each other at first sight and eventually elope. Ayres takes it in stride (again, a bit improbably) and there's even an interesting suggestion that they might work things out as something of a menage a trois; if this had been a pre-Code film or a play by Noel Coward, they might well have done so! But, this being a mainstream MGM comedy, we're just meant to think that they're being very Three-Musketeersish about it all, remaining friendly despite Taylor winning Garson's hand.

But it's only half over. Six months go by and Taylor's workaholic tendencies have irritated Garson to the point where she initiates a separation and impending divorce. Ayres slips them an amnesia potion (we're meant to think that a drug company has actually developed one intended for public consumption!) and the pair forget everything that happened over the last six months, leading us back to the situation at the beginning of the film, with Ayres, Taylor, and Garson all meeting at lunch again. Ayres engineers things so they'll work out better this time.

The actors put this half-thought-through whimsey over quite well and make this an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. Taylor is handsome, Ayres is charming and Garson is lighter than air, presenting a very different persona from the later roles that made her famous. A substantial sideplot involving Garson's rich family allows Billie Burke and Reginald Owen to shine. Burke especially is wonderful with her usual befuddled mannerisms. Henry Travers, Sara Haden, and Laura Hope Crews have small parts, and an older actor named Richard Carle is fun as the stone-deaf boss of Ayres and Taylor; it's a one-joke part that, amazingly, doesn't get too stale over the course of the film.