Saturday, August 31, 2002


This is a little-known wartime propaganda movie, made in England and released by Warner Bros. It plays out a bit like a B-movie variation on CASABLANCA. Griffith Jones, a very handsome British leading man of his day, plays an Intelligence agent who, in the days just before Germany invades France, is assigned to find out if Amercian dress designer Ann Dvorak is a spy. Of course, they fall in love. Ben Lyon (of HELL'S ANGELS), despite getting top billing, has a fairly unimportant supporting role as a drunken journalist. A young but still hefty Robert Morley plays a Nazi. Like THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, which I also saw recently and will review soon, I assume this was intended to be unsubtle homefront propaganda to assure Americans that France hadn't totally given up against the Nazis. When one character yells out, "Achtung!" the reply from a sympathetic character is, "Why, you're not French, you're a hun in stolen clothes!" Politically, the ending is downbeat, but the young lovers have a happy resolution. Dvorak looks a lot like Rosalind Russell in several scenes, but her acting is only so-so. Overall, slow moving, with a B-movie feeling, a couple of overly melodramatic revelations, and a bizarre fisticuffs scene that seems to have come right out of a Saturday afternoon serial. It does build to a fairly satisfying last 15 minutes, but it's not necessarily one to search out, unless you're a Griffith Jones fan--I haven't seen him in much, but I've liked what I have seen of him. He's also the father of Gemma Jones, who played the mother in both BRIDGET JONES' DIARY and THE WINSLOW BOY.

Friday, August 30, 2002


I'm a fan of Chester Morris--he wasn't really a first-rank actor, but he had a look and energy that often made him exciting to watch. This, however, was pretty much a total disappointment, although the plotline had a lot of potential. Morris plays a doctor on a cruise ship headed from Singapore to the US; when cholera breaks out below decks among the boiler room men, he has his hands full trying to care for the men, contain the illness, and deal with the ornery foreman, Victor McLaglen. There's also the pretty and demure nurse (Wendy Barrie) who only has eyes for Morris though McLaglen keeps trying, in his boorish but ultimately harmless way, to woo her. The cholera plot keeps threatening to become interesting, but perhaps because of the low budget, we're mostly confined to just a couple of cabins and the boiler room. The boiler room set is nicely done, but the passengers on the ship are only seen in passing and the whole thing winds up feeling a bit claustrophobic, and not in a way that adds needed tension.

McLaglen outdoes Morris for energy; Morris seems uncomfortable up against the blustry older actor. Alan Hale and Barry Fitzgerald are in the supporting cast. Barrie, who played a wife opposite Charles Laughton in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, wound up working mostly in B-pictures; I remember her from a couple of Falcon movies. Everett Brown, Big Sam from GONE WITH THE WIND, has an interesting, non-stereotyped bit as the lone black man on the ship. This mostly forgotten low-budget film actually got an Oscar nomination for best musical score, but I can't say the music was especially memorable.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002


The atmosphere and acting in this tight little Warner Brothers drama help it transcend its B-movie feeling--nothing against Priscilla Lane, but when she and a guy named Richard Whorf are the top billed stars, I'm assuming the studio didn't consider this prestige material (Whorf went on to a bigger career as a director, most notably with CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR). It's got elements of a musical, a comedy, a melodrama, and a romance, all with a heaping helping of noir atmosphere.

It's basically the story of the trials and tribulations of a scruffy jazz band, composed of Whorf (an intense pianist), Lane (the singer), Jack Carson (trumpet player and Lane's husband), Elia Kazan (yes, the director, as an intellectual clarinet player), and Billy Halop (probably the best-looking Dead End Kid, on drums). They piece together a meager living and wind up the house band at a roadhouse called the Jungle in New Jersey, within view of the lights of Manhattan (sounds a little Springsteenish...). There are romantic problems triggered by Betty Field as a gangster's moll who also fancies herself a singer. Lloyd Nolan is the gangster who helps the band but mistreats practically everyone else around him, including bartender Howard Da Silva and crippled hanger-on Wallace Ford.

Aside from Whorf, who just doesn't quite fit the part, the acting is fine, espeically Nolan and Ford. Kazan and Halop are good as the naive youths, and Carson fits in as the weary but never-say-die voice of experience. There are some surreal montages, used in dream sequences or as transitional passages, directed by Don Siegel, that really add to the noir feel, as do the nighttime sets. The Jungle itself almost becomes a character, like Rick's in CASABLANCA or the hotel in HOLIDAY INN. The first half, as the characters and situations are set up, is the best, but things never really lag all that much. The band's music is a little too glossy sounding considering their stated desire to play down & dirty blues ("the music of the people," says Whorf), but the title song, which is played several times in several different ways, is just perfect. Highly recommended!!

Sunday, August 25, 2002


This mostly forgotten comedy, shown during TCM's Joan Crawford tribute, is a mixed blessing. The unoriginal adultery plot (which calls to mind the later and funnier THE AWFUL TRUTH) is secondary here to the clever dialogue (by Donald Ogden Stewart, who wrote the screenplay to THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) and to a strong supporing cast. Crawford plays another rich young woman of the 30's whose only troubles seem to be romantic ones. After years of indecision, she and fellow rich guy Robert Montgomery decide to tie the knot, but he can't quite settle down and he has what we assume to be a one-night stand with Gail Patrick. Then he lies to Crawford about it. She finds out and tries to retaliate by flirting with pal Franchot Tone at an impromptu house party.

Crawford is fine, but Montgomery and Tone, fighting for Crawford's hand, wind up being nearly indistinguishable from each other, both in looks and in character. There is some very funny dialogue along the way, but it was the supporting cast that rescued the movie for me: Charles Ruggles is fun as a slurring drunk and Arthur Treacher comes in at the end as a stuffy Brit who mumbles loudly and is tricked into misusing American slang--to thank a young woman for a dance, he gleefully shouts, "Nuts to you!" Vivienne Osborne, whose work I'm not familiar with, is good as Treacher's ditzy wife who gives everyone irritating pet names. Even Gail Patrick, who isn't normally given much to do in her man-stealing parts, is fine here. But the best is Edna May Oliver, playing the wise and witty matriarchal figure--she steals every scene she's in and was the main reason I finished watching the movie. She gets to play a little different part than usual, but still manages to let loose with a braying cackle or two, at just the right time.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

More End-of-Summer Catching Up

MR. MOTO'S LAST WARNING (1939)--It's difficult not to compare Moto to Charlie Chan (in fact, there's a cute little self-referential joke when we see a partially-obscured poster for a Chan movie). I can't speak with authority about the whole series since I've only seen this one Moto movie, but this was certainly more exciting than your typical Chan flick, less a mystery than a spy thriller; it was quite atmospheric and Lorre made a fine Moto (unlike Oland & Toler, he seemed a little less locked into a cultural stereotype). George Sanders was quite good (and very young looking) as one of the bad guys, and John Carradine, looking exactly like John Carradine, has a part as a relatively disposable good guy. Not great, but good.

PANAMA HATTIE (1942) was ridiculous and very hard to get through. I don't like Red Skelton, but he wasn't even the worst thing about this movie. Skelton, Ben Blue, and Rags Ragland are sailors who frequent a club in Panama where Ann Sothern sings and dances. Eventually, they all get mixed up with spies, and there's a subplot involving Dan Dailey, as Sothern's fiance, and his young daughter, who doesn't get along with Sothern. The spy plot has so many loopholes, even the director seems to know it, and it all just falls apart about 10 minutes before the end. But the musical numbers kept my interest: Lena Horne does "Just One of Those Things" and Ann Sothern does "I've Still Got My Health." Best of all is one of my favorite novelty singers, Virginia O'Brien, who specialized in stand-still, deadpan singing; she's very funny. She didn't do a lot of movies, but she's always worth watching.

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932)--One of the most tedious comedies I've ever subjected myself to, worth it only for some prime bits by W. C. Fields. Apparently, Fields hadn't yet worked out his familiar screen persona yet--this was the first of his Paramount movies, before he was given free rein--but he still steals every scene he's in. Playing the president of Klopstockia, he reminded me of a cross between Groucho Marx in DUCK SOUP and Mel Brooks in BLAZING SADDLES. The plot is ridiculous; the Marxes could get away with this kind of stuff because they were geniuses, but with a lumbering cast led by the very unfunny Jack Oakie, the whole thing falls flat. Aside from Fields, the only other notable appearance is by Hugh Herbert, before he made that strange, wheezing, "woo-woo" laugh his trademark.

Friday, August 23, 2002

Some End-of-Summer Catching Up

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2002


This is an interesting variation on the backstage musical, kind of a noirish melodrama with some vaudeville routines and songs thrown in. Ida Lupino is a working-class wife with an unambitious and potentially abusive husband. She is guardian of her kid sister (Joan Leslie) and wants her to be able to escape the life Lupino feels trapped in. A second-rate vaudeville team, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, comes through town one night and Leslie decides to run off with Carson, who is not only charmed by her but also thinks she has talent. Lupino is not happy at first, but then realizes she can use the situation to help not only Leslie but herself, and she accompanies her sister and the team on the road. Eventually, she turns Morgan and Carson against each other as Leslie begins to achieve some level of stardom on her own.

This was Morgan & Carson's first movie together and they're pretty good, given that it's much heavier drama than they would eventually be known for. They have a good rapport already and Morgan is especially charming. Carson does a nice job with his dark descent, ending, rather shockingly, in suicide (one of two suicides in the movie). Lupino is also good as her single-minded pursuit of Leslie's success blinds her to anything else. Joan Leslie is the weak link here; she's fine in the earlier scenes, but doesn't quite have what it takes to come off believably as a breakout Broadway star in the movie's one big musical number. The happy ending for Leslie feels contrived and artificial, and it's yet another movie with the moral that women should give up their careers to make their men happy--or if they're really unhappy, they should just die. The atmosphere, especially in the beginning and end, feels noirish, although it otherwise doesn't really fit the genre.

Monday, August 19, 2002

Character actors in B-movie leads: Charles Ruggles & Grant Mitchell

FRIENDS OF MR. SWEENEY (1934)--I tend to forget how much I like Charles Ruggles. Mostly I've seen him in supporting comic roles in films like BRINGING UP BABY, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, and RUGGLES OF RED GAP (where he does NOT play Ruggles!). The time I remember not liking him was in MURDERS IN THE ZOO, where his comic style felt out of place. In this one, he has a rare lead part as a milquetoastish journalist who writes strong, nearly radical columns that his editor always wants toned down. His secretary, Ann Dvorak, likes him and encourages him to stand up for himself. A series of occurances involving dating, dancing and drinking changes his outlook and in the end, he helps to foil the ambitions of a crooked politician. This is short (70 minutes) and the first half is quite fun. The strenuous shenanigans of mistaken identities and gun play get a little tiring in the last half, but the movie doesn't outstay its welcome. Dvorak is rather mild; I think her strong performance in THREE ON A MATCH was a career fluke. Berton Churchill (as the philandering editor) and Eugene Pallatte (as a visiting college buddy of Ruggles's who helps bring out the adventurer in him) are good. Not one to search out, but if you stumble across it, it's worth catching.

FATHER IS A PRINCE (1940)--Barely an hour long, this bland second feature, which today would be a pilot for a sitcom, is about a father (Grant Mitchell) who is too concerned with making money and having his house run like clockwork to truly be a loving dad and husband. Most of the movie is light and humorous in tone, but it takes a melodramatic turn when the mother (Nana Bryant) takes deathly ill (during a loud argument with Mitchell) with some unstated illness that requires a touch-and-go operation--her brush with death makes Mitchell realize that he should change his ways toward his family. Pretty mild stuff that even the supporting cast (Jan Clayton, George Reeves, John Litel) can't bring to life. Mitchell, who is fine in small roles (most notably as the cantankerous father in MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER), can't really handle a leading part. But Lee Patrick (the secretary in MALTESE FALCON) is very good as a rich relative.

Friday, August 16, 2002


[Some plot spoilers included below!!]
I had avoided this one, even though it has Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan, because it's about truckers and I tend to put trucker films in with circus films and sports films as movie genres that I avoid. But this was quite good, and has the best George Raft performance I've ever seen. Raft and Bogart are brothers who are "wildcat," or independent, truck drivers, struggling to make a living on their own apart from corporate trucking. They still owe some money on their truck; in the opening, truckstop waitress Ann Sheridan helps them escape the repossession man so they can get one more haul and pay their last installment. Raft and Sheridan fall for each other (Bogart, in one of his last supporting roles before he hit it big with HIGH SIERRA & MALTESE FALCON, is married and faithful). According to this film, the most dangerous part of being a trucker is the possibility of falling asleep at the wheel, and an accident of this kind winds up derailing the careers of both Raft and Bogart, so they end up in the corporate business anyway, thanks to good-natured trucking boss Alan Hale. But his scheming wife, Ida Lupino, gets the hots for Raft and won't stop at murder to try to snag him.

The story is fast-paced and seems fairly believable, as are the characters. Hale gets a rare chance to shine here, as does Roscoe Karns as a trucking buddy. Lupino goes over-the-top as the psychotic wife, but her performance fits. She kills Hale by locking him in the garage, drunk and at the wheel of a running car; her breakdown in a courtroom scene is quite good, with the electric-eye garage doors coming back to haunt her ("The doors made me do it!!") at the climax. I spotted handsome John Ridgely in a small part, along with George Tobias and John Litel. Apart from a sort of phony feeling happy ending, this is definitely one I'd recommend.

Thursday, August 15, 2002


This swingin' 60's satire is more relevant than ever, and not just because Mike Myers was influenced by it when he cobbled together his Austin Powers material. In the future, something called The Big Hunt has been legalized, allowing people to hunt and kill each other. You join the Hunt and are paired up by computer with another person--one is the hunter and one is the victim. The hunter gets all kinds of information about the victim, but the victim only knows that he or she is being hunted. The object is for one to kill the other. This has supposedly channeled mankind's aggressive tendencies and cut way down on crime, war, and birth control. Ursula Andress is about to go after Marcello Mastroianni; if she kills him, it will be her tenth kill and she'll win a million dollars. Of course, things get complicated and they fall in love, sort of.

The part of the satire that bites the most today isn't the conceit of the legalized hunt so much as it is Andress selling her killing to an advertiser; the Ming Tea company will film her killing Mastroianni and endorsing their tea as she fires the lethal shot. Everything is set up in the Roman Coliseum, including dancing teapots and singing children, waiting for her to lure him to his death. In this day and age of Survivor and The Mole and The Bachelor, this set-up suddenly doesn't seem all that far-fetched--as with NETWORK, real life has caught up, rather scarily, with what was once outrageous satire.

The movie has a problem that a lot of current movies have: one too many endings. They cop out a bit in the final scene, although the comment it makes on the desire to marry (or escape marriage) is amusing. In the first scene, Andress kills a man with a shiny silver bikini top that shoots bullets; Myers paid homage to this in AUSTIN POWERS 2, and he also uses the Ming Tea name for the band that records background music for each of the Powers movies. Andress is good, and Mastroianni is very good, looking quite nice as well with bleached hair and black mock-turtlenecks. The look of the movie is generally low-budget, but there are some striking visuals here and there, and lots of fun, almost throwaway references--comic books are called "classics" and are highly collectible items of academic study; a killing takes place in a (rather mild) S&M club where Andress dances teasingly in front of a man, then slaps him silly. Very fun.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002


This Joan Crawford comedy was fun, although not quite as fun as it should have been given its strong cast. It's a remake of a movie made in 1929 with Norma Shearer (which I reviewed here back in December 2001). Crawford plays a woman who poses as a rich widow in order to gain the confidence of a group of rich folks so she can steal a valuable strand of pearls. Her "servants," including William Powell (apparently her lover), Melville Cooper, and Sara Haden, are actually her partners in crime. Frank Morgan does his usual doddering old fool character, falling for Crawford and doing foolish things while pursuing her. Robert Montgomery is the English Lord who also falls for, and she eventually for him. He catches her in mid-theft and the sparks really start to fly.

From what I recall, this follows the original quite closely. Crawford comes off better than Shearer did (part of the reason is the awkward early talkie acting style of the original). Powell, in what amounts to a supporting role, is just as wonderful as he always is. Nigel Bruce is good, as is Jessie Ralph as the Duchess. In fact, the movie could have used more Ralph, Bruce, and Powell. But Montgomery is the weak link, not nearly as good as Basil Rathbone was in the '29 film. He does a variation on his "irritating cad who is actually a charming fellow," but he comes off far more irritating than charming, and I couldn't buy that Crawford would even think about giving up Powell for him. Still, it was worth watching. The first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes are the most fun.

Monday, August 12, 2002


[Warning: some plot point spoilers are included below]

Despite an only so-so critical reputation, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I'm always interested in seeing WWII narrative propaganda movies; this one worked quite well as propaganda, as an exciting story, and as an examination of the shades of gray involved beneath labels like good, evil, brave, and cowardly. Only in the last 15 minutes did I feel let down, when the movie stops dead in its tracks for too much speechifying, most of it by Laughton; even he can't quite save the material there. In an unspecified European village in a country that has been overrun by the Nazis, Laughton is a timid schoolteacher who won't stand up to his rowdy students, or for his principles when the Nazis start to censor teaching material. He also has a crush on a lovely neighbor, Maureen O'Hara, but his mother (Una O'Connor), whom Laughton lives with, has put a damper on that. O'Hara's brother, Kent Smith, is secretly a Resistance fighter who assassinates a Nazi officer and winds up in big trouble. George Sanders, as O'Hara's boyfriend, is a local industrialist who advocates collaborating with the enemy and winds up betraying Smith to the Nazis (after O'Connor betrays Smith to Sanders). Eventually, Laughton rises to the occasion and winds up a tragic hero.

I'm a big Laughton fan and, for the most part, he gives his usual excellent performance until the interminable propaganda speeches at the end. Kent Smith is surprisingly good, given his usual propensity for woodeness. O'Connor (who I like despite the over-the-top screeching she is usually called upon to do in her roles) was a little more subtle than usual. Walter Slezak is fine as a "civilized" Nazi who wants as little trouble as possible. But the real surprise for me was George Sanders. The more I see of him, especially in his 40's movies, the more impressed I am. He had the most complex part, a man who "collaborates" with the Nazis and genuinely thinks he's doing so for good philosophical reasons. His internal torture when he realizes the implications of what he has done is expressed very well by Sanders and he turns the character into something very much like a tragic anti-hero. Yes, it's wartime propaganda, but I think it holds up surprisingly well. Directed by Jean Renoir, so the unspecified country is probably France.

Saturday, August 10, 2002


This British Hitchcock thriller, based on a couple of stories by Somerset Maugham, is one of John Gielgud's earliest movies, and one of only a handful he did between the early 30's and the mid 50's. He plays the equivalent of a somewhat reluctant James Bond; a novelist who has done espionage work for the British in the past, he is "killed off" by his bosses and given a new name (Ashenden) and a new assignment: go to Switzerland and kill off a German spy, whose identity isn't known yet. With him are Madeleine Carroll, posing as his wife, and Peter Lorre as a rather flamboyantly eccentric fellow agent who goes by three names: "The General" (which he's not), "The Hairless Mexican" (which he's not), and some very long name which he rattles off speedily but that I could never make sense of (which also is probably not his name). The three soon pinpoint the spy, an older British man with a German wife and a dog, but when Gielgud and Lorre get him alone on a mountain top, Gielgud begins to have doubts as to whether or not he's the man. I won't say much more about the plot from that point on except that there are some nice twists and turns before all is resolved.

There are a couple of grand Hitchcock set pieces, including the cornering of the old man on the mountain-top and a creepy scene in a church involving an unseen organist and a bizarrely prolonged chord. There is also an exciting chase through a chocolate factory (I kept wondering if I'd see Lucy and Ethel near the conveyor belt!) and the climax features a speeding train under bombardment from the skies. Robert Young is also present, as a dashing American who spends most of his time flirting with Carroll. Apparently the Maugham stories are autobiographical, based on his experiences while spying for the British, and it's adds a little something to think of Gielgud as playing a version on Maugham, as Herbert Marshall does in THE RAZOR'S EDGE and MOON AND SIXPENCE. Not quite as fun as THE LADY VANISHES (though for my money, better than the 1934 MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH), but its theme of the spy whose heart isn't quite in his work is interesting and a bit ahead of its time.

Friday, August 09, 2002

Two with Edward G. Robinson:

THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938)--A very unusual plot and tone make this one worth watching. Edward G. Robinson plays a psychiatrist who makes a hobby of jewel thieving in order to carry out experiments concerning how people react physically and mentally when they engage in criminal activities. He winds up joining a gang (w/ Allen Jenkins, Ward Bond, Maxie Rosenblum, and Humphrey Bogart) and getting friendly with their fence (Claire Trevor). Things are fairly light for the first half, but complications soon pile up. First, Bogart gets defensive about Robinson slowly taking his role as gang leader. Then, when Clitterhouse fears he could be getting addicted to the rush of crime, he tries to get out, with unpleasant results. Even though events lead to a cold-blooded murder and a sensationalistic courtroom trial, the tone remains light, more like a 60's dark comedy than a 30's gangster film. The fairly satisfying ending is one of the oddest of the Code era, showing that punishment in the eye of the beholder. The whole cast is very good.

THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO (1930) is an early Robinson gangster film without much charm or excitement until the last 10 minutes. Alice White plays the sister of a cop who was murdered by Robinson. She poses as the widow of an out-of-town enforcer who was supposedly killed on the way to do a job for Robinson. Working undercover for the police, she infiltrates the gang successfully until the enforcer (Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon on TV's BATMAN) shows up alive. It is a clever plot, but the actors can't do much with it until the chase finale. Part of the problem is that it's a fairly early sound film and the direction feels slow and awkward. Robinson uses his most stereotyped gangster mannerisms, although to be fair, they may not have been stereotypes at the time. Frank McHugh has a small supporting role.

Monday, August 05, 2002


William Powell and Myrna Loy in a cross between a Thin Man movie (done as a courtroom drama instead of as a comic detective story) and a serious THE AWFUL TRUTH. I'm going to discuss the plot in some detail, but nothing here will give away the ending. Powell is a successful and busy lawyer (finishing up a headline-grabbing case defending Rosalind Russell) and Loy is his wife, who is feeling like she's taking second place in Powell's life. Powell may or may not have had a brief fling with Russell; this came out the year they began to enforce the Code, so things are left a little murky. They definitely shared a train compartment when they shouldn't have. Loy finds out and retalitates by getting serious with a drunken lout of an admirer (Harvey Stephens), although again, whether or not their relationship becomes physical is left up in the air. This reminded me of THE AWFUL TRUTH, where I think we're supposed to believe that both Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are innocent of any real hanky-panky, but the possibility has to remain in the air for the plot to make sense.

Stephens blackmails Loy with incriminating letters she wrote to him. Loy threatens him with a gun. We know that the gun goes off and that Stephens winds up dead, but we don't see the actual incident. A sleazy girlfriend of Stephens', Isabel Jewell, is arrested for the murder, and Powell, who knows nothing about all of this, takes her case, at the instigation of Loy--she thinks he's such a good lawyer, he'll be able to get Jewell off and ease her conscience. However, once we get in the courtroom, there are surprises for everyone.

Despite a couple of cheating moments (we see Loy confront Stephens but are denied seeing the climax of the scene just so that vital information is withheld from us until the end), this is well plotted and well acted. Russell pretty much vanishes at the halfway point, but the rest of the supporting cast is very good, especially Una Merkel, as a friend of Loy's, and Jessie Ralph, as an old woman who could posibly identify Loy as being present the night of the murder. Isabel Jewell is also good; I'm not sure why she didn't have a stronger career. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, August 04, 2002


With a title like this, I assumed the movie would be a frothy musical comedy, but instead it's a fairly serious fictional bio-pic with very little music. Don Ameche is a Mack Sennett-like figure who pioneers slapstick comedy and bathing-beauty movies, then gets too big for his britches and falls into a career tailspin while the actress he discovered (Alice Faye, supposedly loosely based on Mabel Normand) soars to the top. Critics such as Leonard Maltin like the early parts which recreate Keystone Cop films, using actual silent celebs like Buster Keaton and Ben Turpin (and Mack Sennett appears briefly as himself), but then they claim the movie goes wrong when it gets melodramatic in the last half.

However, I liked the last half better--Ameche and Faye mostly rise to the occasion (although the situations get awfully trite). It becomes a serious SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, dealing with the transition from silent to talking pictures, though not in as much depth as RAIN. With the title, I expected lots of song and dance, but there is virtually none. Still, it was a pleasant surprise. A handsome young actor named Alan Curtis plays Faye's love interest and he doesn't have much to do except look handsome. He looked familiar; according to IMDb, he had a fairly strong career in secondary parts, although he died in his 40's after kidney surgery. He's in BUCK PRIVATES, PHANTOM LADY, SHOPWORN ANGEL, HIGH SIERRA, and HITLER'S MADMAN, all of which I've seen but in none of which can I place him. Ameche is good, but Faye is lukewarm as always; I can never quite figure out how she got the career she had.

Saturday, August 03, 2002


I've seen bits and pieces of this over the years, but now that I've seen the whole thing in one sitting, I think it's best experienced in short bursts. Based on a hit play, it's the adventures of a group of guys sharing a dorm room at the Virginia Military Institute, a real place that I can only assume is heavily fictionalized here. Wayne Morris (handsome and sturdy) is the cocky and daring one, Ronald Reagan is the one who wants to be the voice of reason, and Eddie Albert is relatively shy and quiet, partly because he has a secret bride who is pregnant--school rules don't allow marriages for cadets. Scenes of the three guys interacting in their room are pretty good, as Morris & Reagan & Albert do work up some fun chemistry, but when the movie opens up the play beyond that, the going gets a little tedious. Priscilla Lane and Jane Wyman are OK, but aren't given much to do aside from a flat slapsticky bit where they're caught with the boys at their house after hours. William Tracy (the annoying messenger boy in SHOP AROUND THE CORNER) has a small part, as does Johnnie Davis, who stands out to me as the androgynous fellow who sings "Hooray for Hollywood" at the beginning of HOLLYWOOD HOTEL. Overall, it passed the time well enough, but much of it was surprisingly slow-moving and the characters were not as charming as they should have been. It didn't inspire any great desire in me to see the sequel.

Friday, August 02, 2002

Rathbone and Cushing as Sherlock Holmes

When I was growing up, I saw most of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies on TV on the late afternoon show. The first two, HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, are generally considered the best, if only because they cost the most and had the most care taken in their making. These two, set in Conan Doyle's time, stand out to me, but the rest, set in the present and mostly made on B-movie budgets, have tended to blur together in my memory, so I'm trying to re-watch the other Rathbone films as I run across them. THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1945) has a good critical reputation, though there are plot loopholes galore. A "Ten Little Indians" atmosphere is created in a house where a group of seven men are being killed off, one by one, often mutilated beyond recognition, in what appears to be an attempt to get insurance money. Holmes and Watson (and later, Lestrade) arrive on the scene to figure out what's what. I admit it had me puzzled, although my partner Don figured out the solution in the first 20 minutes, and it's a nifty one. THE SCARLET CLAW (1944) has a Hound of the Baskervilles-type setting, a small village where animals, and eventually people, are being found dead. Holmes and Watson learn about the situation after a retired actress is killed, then they receive a letter from the dead woman asking for help. She's beyond help, but they decide to investigate anyway. This isn't quite as good as FEAR, but it has its moments and the foggy village atmosphere adds to the movie's appeal.

I think Rathbone is the best Holmes (and, of course, Nigel Bruce is the best Watson), but I watched the 1959 Peter Cushing version of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES anyway and was quite disappointed. It's a Hammer production and looks and feels like one, with its bright colors and elaborate but artificial sets; the problem is that it keeps threatening to become a full-fledged Hammer horror movie, but it never does. Some more bosoms and blood could only have helped. I won't rehash the plot, about a supposed ghost hound from Hell that is threatening Lord Baskerville and assorted other villagers. Christopher Lee is wasted as Baskerville--he does his best to bring some oomph to his role, but is defeated by mediocre direction. Cushing is serviceable as Holmes, and Andre Morrell practically vanishes as Watson. On top of which, at almost 90 minutes, it's just too long to sustain interest, especially since it does follow the original story fairly well, so if you know it, you know exactly where it's going. Watching this just made me want to watch the Rathbone version again.