Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Re-Introducing Myself

My "mission" with my blog is primarily to write reviews of classic-era movies that I see on DVD, tape, or cable (mostly Turner Classic Movies or Fox Movie Channel). I find it difficult to be objective or rationally critical about old movies which I have already seen and loved, so that's why I usually do not review more well-known classics like CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. At this point in my movie-watching life, I am actively searching out less well-known movies, or movies that are hard to come by, or films about which it is difficult to find critical information in movie reference guides. My favorite genres are mystery, film noir, musical, horror, and WWII films (actually made during the war rather than made later but set during wartime). I also enjoy B-films of the 30's and 40's, and pre-Code movies (from 1930-1934, before censorious Production Code restrictions became mandatory). Silent movies are not my cup of tea, but I will watch one occasionally. I avoid westerns and, frankly, 50's movies in general; after WWII, Hollywood went into a creative decline that didn't end until the mid-60's. My cut-off date for "classic era" is 1969, but I may begin violating that rule this year, and sometimes briefly mention current movies that I enjoy. I will also start noting whether I saw the movie being reviewed on cable, video, or in a theater (I'm lucky that here in Columbus, Ohio, we have a theater downtown that shows classic movies all summer long, and also a university that occasionally presents older films). I enjoy the feedback I get and continue to encourage it; check my sidebar to contact me. I am also going to try to start noting in my blog when certain favorites of mine will be showing on TCM or FMC. And I'll start by noting that a good Fritz Lang thriller, MINISTRY OF FEAR, will be on TCM Saturday, Jan 3, at 8 a.m. (all times Eastern)

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

2003: My Year in Movies--Part Two

Of the 180 or so classic-era movies I saw for the first time and reviewed on my blog in the past year, here are my least favorite:

ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (1938): Not an awful movie, just very disappointing. All the weaknesses of the Fox musicals are writ large here: a tediously predictable story, unexciting production numbers, excessive length, and Alice Faye. Good Irving Berlin songs and a nice supporting performance by Ethel Merman, but not much fun.

FIRST LADY (1937): My tolerance for Kay Francis depends on her surroundings. Here, she has some good material (by George S. Kauffman) but is directed badly and supported by a bland cast. A total washout.

HITTING A NEW HIGH (1937): Actually, a new low among musicals. Lily Pons couldn't act, Jack Oakie couldn't stop overacting, and the usually reliable Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore can't save it. Clever plot, bad execution all around.

LADY SCARFACE (1941): Judith Anderson is completely wasted in a supporting role of little consequence, even though she plays the title character. Sub-par crime movie with boring leads.

THE LADY TAKES A SAILOR (1949): Years after the screwball comedy genre had peaked came this tired retread. I like the stars, Jane Wyman and Dennis Morgan, but clearly their hearts weren't in this ridiculous comedy with few laughs.

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931): An Ernst Lubitsch comic operatta that is well made, I suppose, but not very light on its feet, despite some good work by Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Maurice Chevalier's presence is definitely not a plus in my book. Boring, which this kind of whimsy should never be.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1935): Drab, draggy, depressing, despite two actors I usually like, Paul Lukas and Walter Abel. Abel is badly miscast as D'Artagnan. Avoid at all costs. Thankfully, Turner Classic Movies rarely shows it.

UNDERCURRENT (1946): A glossy noirish soap opera from MGM, proving that "glossy"and "noir" really don't belong in the same phrase. Not terrible, but not up to the usual standards of MGM, director Vincente Minelli, or star Katharine Hepburn.

Some highlights of the year:
I discovered Harold Lloyd, thanks to TCM. THE FRESHMAN was very funny, THE CAT'S PAW a little less so but unique and interesting. I have a couple more on tape to watch soon. I hope Lloyd's daughter will allow his films to be released on DVD sooner rather than later. I also saw Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN on the big screen with live organ accompaniment, which was great fun.

I got Fox Movie Channel, which helps offset the loss of American Movie Classics, which has gone so far downhill that I don't even check their schedule anymore. Thanks to Fox, I saw movies with Will Rogers, Betty Grable, and Don Ameche; some restored Charlie Chan movies; and the wonderful CHANDU. My only complaint: they don't show enough 30's and 40's movies, and they repeat too much. It seemed like Fox executives thought ACE ELI AND RODGER OF THE SKIES was the gem in their crown.

There were some excellent DVD's out this year: A superb restoration of the early Karloff horror film THE GHOUL, a nice line of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (together and separately) films from Universal (I especially appreciated the double bills), Kino's excellent disc of METROPOLIS, Fox's Studio Classics line with great prints of ALL ABOUT EVE, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, and SUNRISE, and Warner's dazzling package of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. On the other hand, Columbia put out mediocre prints of THE AWFUL TRUTH and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and overcharged for THE DEVIL COMMANDS, charging 25 bucks for an hour-long film that looks only OK. Even the usually reliable Criterion made a mistake with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER: a complete and good looking print, but plagued with annoying flickering for much of its running time.

My favorite recent movies, seen in theaters or on DVD: THE HOURS, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (Catharine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney must be among the most beautiful people on the planet), AMERICAN SPLENDOR, SPIRITED AWAY, CHICAGO, A MIGHTY WIND, THE ITALIAN JOB, and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (a movie I had avoided but my friends made me watch). ELF was sweet and one of the best Christmas movies in many years. 28 DAYS LATER and LOST IN TRANSLATION were worth seeing but not as wonderful as the critics seemed to think. SWIMMING POOL and RUSSIAN ARK were interesting but disappointing. THE TRANSPORTER and CABIN FEVER were pretty bad. THE RECRUIT was worth watching only for the steamy Colin Farrell, who I'm still not convinced will be a great actor. And my personal favorite celebrity crush Jeremy Piven had a small but nice role in RUNAWAY JURY (and did commentary on the DVD of the otherwise wretched PCU).

Monday, December 29, 2003

2003: My Year in Movies--Part One

Of the 180 or so classic-era movies I saw for the first time and reviewed on my blog in the past year, here are my favorites, with year of release and the month of my review:

CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR (1950/Sept): TV quiz show spoof that has become newly relevant lately. Ronald Colman is good, but Vincent Price steals the movie with a unexpectedly delightful supporing performance. (On DVD)

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932/Oct): Wonderful fantasy/adventure fun with Chandu trying to stop a super-villain from using his death ray to bring the world to its knees. Edmund Lowe as the lead hero is bland, but Bela Lugosi is excellent as the scenery-chewing bad guy. Paced and structured like a movie serial, but over in under 90 minutes. Fun special effects as well, much better than in any serial I've seen. (Fox Movie Channel)

DANCING LADY (1933/March) and SADIE MCKEE (1934/Sept): Two movies that gave me a new appreciation for Joan Crawford. Long before her screen persona hardened into that of a soapy, campy Queen Bitch, here she's much lighter on her toes playing sympathetic young women looking for love. The lovely and quiet scene in SADIE when Gene Raymond sings "All I Do is Dream of You" to Crawford is one of my peak movie moments of the year. (Turner Classic Movies)

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933/Dec): An underrated WWI war drama (sort of an anti-war, anti-buddy movie) with powerful performances by Fredric March and Cary Grant. (On VHS)

FEMALE (1933/June): A great pre-Code comedy/drama with Ruth Chatterton as a powerful working woman who likes to dally with her handsome employees, but refuses to let them get too serious, until George Brent comes along. The ending is a letdown, but until the last 10 minutes, this is a fun "turnaround" plot; never under the Code could a woman who wasn't a prostitute be seen as enjoying brief sexual flings as Chatterton does. (TCM)

THE GLASS KEY (1942/Sept): Alan Ladd at his best in this early film noir, staying loyal to his boss (Brian Donlevy) while romancing Donlevy's girl (Veronica Lake) and getting the shit beaten out of him in an archetypal noir torture scene with William Bendix. Seeing this helped me make sense of the Coen Brothers noir pastiche, MILLER'S CROSSING. (TCM)

THE NAKED KISS (1964/Jan): I'm not exactly a Samuel Fuller fan, but seeing this after having seen SHOCK CORRIDOR last year has helped me appreciate him. Trashy melodrama about a hooker with a heart of gold who gets tangled up in some sordid small town affairs. Cheaply made but compelling, with a unique look and tone. (On DVD)

RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (1940/May): Light and frothy Bing Crosby musical, with a rare leading performance by Mary Martin. The show biz plot is a little silly, but perfectly serviceable, and almost every musical number is fun. (On DVD)

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934/Jan): Sink me! This is sort of a cheat since I'd seen this wonderful adventure film before, but this was my first DVD viewing. This may be Leslie Howard's best performance ever, and the Oscar Wilde-like dialogue is delightful. Raymond Massey makes a formidable villain. Grand fun. (On DVD)

Runner-ups include a few WWII films (WING AND A PRAYER, A YANK IN THE R.A.F, BERLIN EXPRESS), some good pre-Code films (POSSESSED, TORCH SINGER, MADAM SATAN, MAN WANTED, and JEWEL ROBBERY), and some fine noirish thrillers (LURED, WHEN STRANGERS MARRY, D.O.A., WOMAN ON THE BEACH). Also worth noting: THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, ROXIE HART, SCREAM OF FEAR, THE CONFORMIST, and OLIVER TWIST. I enjoyed discovering Eric Linden, a pre-Code juvenile lead, in BIG CITY BLUES and AGE OF CONSENT; a few more of his movies are on my list for 2004. I liked Will Rogers in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE and enjoyed seeing more of Chester Morris in THE GAY BRIDE, AERIAL GUNNER, and THE GREAT WHITE HOPE; an e-mail pal sent me a couple of Morris' Boston Blackie movies which I'll review soon.

I appreciated Bob Hope more than ever this year in STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM , THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and ROAD TO UTOPIA, but of all the celebrity deaths of the year, Katharine Hepburn's was the one that affected me the most; she made some bad movies like anyone else, but she gives three of the greatest acting performances of all time in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, THE LION IN WINTER, and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. I think Tracy Lord remains one of the most interesting and fleshed-out women in any movie. We'll never see another like her.

Saturday, December 27, 2003


This is the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture instead of CITIZEN KANE. KANE was certainly robbed, but this is a fine movie in the sentimental family saga genre. Set around the turn of the century, it's about the childhood of Huw Morgan, played by 12-year-old Roddy McDowell, the youngest child in a family of Welsh coal miners. The episodic narrative (told in voiceover by Huw as an adult--Irving Pichel, whom we never see on camera) covers the gradual dispersal of the five other sons as the fortunes of the mines rise and fall. First, union agitation causes a rift between the boys and their father (Donald Crisp). Later, two sons leave for America when an economic downturn causes layoffs. Ivor (Patric Knowles, who is seen quite a bit but has almost no dialogue) marries Bronwyn (Anna Lee) and later dies in a mining accident on the very day his wife gives birth. Huw's sister (Maureen O'Hara) is in love with the local minister (Walter Pidgeon), but he thinks she would be unhappy having to sacrifice to share his impoverished state. She winds up in an unhappy marriage with the rich son of the mine owner. Later, when she returns to the town still married but alone, gossip flares up about she and Pidgeon. We also follow various other trials undergone by McDowell, Crisp, and Sara Allgood, the mother of the brood.

Basically, the arc of the story is downward; things get worse and worse, and then someone dies, and they get worse some more, although the tone of the movie is not as downbeat as that description implies. The episodes get shorter and choppier in the last half, giving the film a rushed feeling (probably due to the fact that it was based on a novel and was intended to be a 4-hour epic on the scale of GONE WITH THE WIND). Crisp and Allgood are excellent and the movie would be worth watching if only for the two of them--both were nominated for Supporting Actor Oscars and Crisp won. McDowell is fine, although he's not convincing as a growing boy; several years pass but he looks and acts the same age throughout. John Loder, usually a B-movie lead, is good as one of the sons; Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, real life brothers, pop up in small roles, with Shields memorable as an unpleasant church elder. The look of the film, though occasionally artificial, is generally quite good, with the sloping street of houses and mine chimneys providing a strong backdrop for much of the action. The luminous black and white cinematography is by Arthur Miller who won an Oscar. Overall, not an uplifiting movie, but an absorbing one which I imagine will stand up to multiple viewings.

Friday, December 26, 2003


Typical Warners film of the era; the plotline may have been original back then, but now it feels full of cliches and stale stereotypes. James Cagney is Chesty O'Connor, a scrappy ironworker who delights in taunting the Navy men who work nearby, particularly Pat O'Brien. Their antagonistic relationship blows up at an ironworkers' party where O'Brien steals Cagney's girl (Dorothy Tree) and wins a fist fight. Cagney decides to join the Navy to get back at O'Brien; in the meantime, he starts dating O'Brien's sister (Gloria Stuart, the older Rose in TITANIC), and when they get serious, O'Brien tries to lay down the law. Cagney manages to piss off all the Navy men with his cocky, anti-authoritarian patter, but he comes through for his fellow sailors during a fire on board a ship, the Arizona (the same ship that, in real life, was sunk at Pearl Harbor). Later, he even saves O'Brien's life when both of them wind up hanging from an airborne dirigible. They develop mutual respect, if not friendship. Frank McHugh plays Cagney's buddy Droopy; a running gag involves Droopy's mom's false teeth and her ability to sing. The Cagney/Stuart relationship is not fleshed out very well; it's difficult to see what someone of her relative refinement sees in Cagney's rudeness and tough demeanor. The friendship between Cagney and McHugh is the most heartfelt thing in the movie; there's no homoerotic charge between them, though at one point, a sailor yells at them, "Swish!! What are you two, a couple of violets?" Recommended mostly for fans of Cagney, or fans of the military-buddies-at-peacetime film, if that is indeed a separate genre.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Christmas on TV--2003

I hardly ever watch made-for-TV movies, but given my love of all things Christmas, I make an exception in December and allow myself to watch one or two of the holiday offerings each year. As I sat down to write this, I was thinking that my taste in Christmas TV movies gravitated towards those which featured smoothly and blandly handsome leading men, but I think perhaps that is an inescapable ingredient of TV movies in general. Two years ago, I enjoyed THE SONS OF MISTLETOE with the handsome and likeable George Newbern; last year, I watched (but didn't enjoy as much) SANTA JR. with the handsome and likeable Nick Stabile. This year, my handsome and likeable pick is Steven Eckholdt (who I always used to get confused with the handsome but mean Aaron Eckhart) in SECRET SANTA. Actually, the star is Jennie Garth, who plays a human-interest reporter dying for a shot at a good investigative story; she winds up in the small town of Hamden, Indiana trying to find out the identity of the "Secret Santa" who has for several years given deserving poor folks in town expensive and life-altering gifts. Her first guess is Eckholdt, a local rich nice guy and widower, but what about Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver on "Leave It to Beaver"), sweet resident of a nursing home who gives Garth a copy her favorite story, "The Gift of the Magi"? Or Charlie Robinson (the clerk on "Night Court"), a sweet natured employee at the home who devotes much of his time to the residents? It's easy to figure out the identity of the gift-giver, as it's easy to predict what Garth will do with her story. Garth, despite her years on "Beverly Hills 90210," is a little out of her league here, which is a shame because she's the only actor given much to do. Eckholdt, Billingsley, and especially Robinson are good but underused. Still, the time flew by fairly quickly and the inevitable kid in the wheelchair doesn't turn into Tiny Tim.

I also watched ELOISE AT CHRISTMASTIME which, surprisingly, also had a blandly handsome leading man, though he only gets fifth or sixth billing. Eloise, the heroine of a series of children's books of the 50's, is the little rich girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel. I have enjoyed the illustrated books, but when she comes to life, it turns out she's not all that likeable. It's not the fault of the actress, 11-year-old Sofia Vassilieva, who is quite good. It's just that when her shenanigans are taken off the page and brought to the small screen, they seem more obnoxious than charming. Despite the Christmas trappings, the story has little to do with the holiday. Eloise winds up playing matchmaker for the daughter of the hotel owner (Sarah Topham) who has returned to New York for the first time in years, and the poor but handsome and likeable bellman (Gavin Creel) who has had an unrequited crush on her for a long time. Unfortunately, she's getting married to the rich but irritating Rick Roberts (and it turns out he isn't even rich, but is basically a golddigger) and Eloise only has a few days to make things come out like they should. Julie Andrews is wonderful as the nanny (of *course* she is!), though she doesn't have a lot to do. Creel is quite dashing and a good dancer. I just wish it had been a bit more Christmasy.

Monday, December 22, 2003


This TV-movie version of the Dickens classic doesn't have the reputation it deserves, perhaps because it rarely shows up on TV, though it has been issued on tape and DVD. Set in a Massachusetts town during the Depression, it stars Henry Winkler as Ben Slade, a mean and lonely old man who delights in spending his Christmas Eve evicting unemployed folks and repossessing furniture. Thatcher, his assistant, played by R.H. Thomson, gets no glee from accompanying Slade, and winds up getting fired for his suggestion that Slade could use his fortune to reopen a local quarry so the townsfolk could get back to work. That night, Slade is visited by the ghost of his late business partner and warned to expect "visitations" that will show him the error of his ways. The supernatural visitors take the form of the down-on-their-luck people that Slade has visited earlier that day. We see Slade go from an enterprising young man to a successful but ruthless businessman who alienates most everyone who was important to him. Of course, when he wakes up Christmas morning, he's a changed man. The character of Slade is a little more fleshed out than some movie Scrooges, and Winkler is good (though his old man makeup is not terribly convincing). David Wayne, a bookseller, becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Dorian Harewood, a poor black man who had his oven and furniture taken, is the Future, dressed in gold chains and a leisure suit, which dates the movie a bit. Slade's time-traveling is denoted by his radio, which plays snatches of music and news from various eras. There are few surprises here, but it's fun to watch and see how the elements of the original story get transformed (and surprisingly there is no "God bless us every one" from Tiny Tim, or Little Mr. T. has he's called here). While this version doesn't approach the heights of the Sim or Scott versions, it's still most definitely worth a seasonal look.

Sunday, December 21, 2003


One of the less interesting Bing Crosby musicals from his heyday in the 40's. Set in the unspecified past in New Orleans, Crosby plays a musican who is set on starting up the first all-white blues band (!?). He and his gang of part-time musicians hear of a "hot" cornet player from Memphis (Brain Donlevy) who has blown into town and right into jail, so they all leave they day jobs, get Donlevy free, meet up (quite improbably) with Mary Martin (a "hot" girl singer) and together get a good start on bleaching out the blues. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson is Crosby's loyal sidekick, Carolyn Lee is Martin's nine-year-old aunt (!?), and some real musicians (Perry Botkin and Jack Teagarden among them) make up the band. I'm hardly an expert on the blues, but most of the music in the movie sounds nothing like the blues, except for a nice sequence when Anderson seems to be on his deathbed; the band plays "St. James Infirmary" and his wife Ruby Elzy sings "St. Louis Blues." More often, the songs are vaguely "hot" arrangements of songs like "Wait Til the Sun Shines Nellie" and "Melancholy Baby." The numbers are fine, but they sure ain't the blues. J. Carroll Naish and Warren Hymer also appear, and Cecil Kellaway has a cameo. Aside from the opening buisness with Donlevy, the rest is fairly slow going. Botkin's name was familiar to me from seeing it on album jackets in the 60's and 70's; he did musical arrangements for, among others, The Lettermen, the Friends of Distinction, Carly Simon, and Harry Nilsson, including one of my favorite albums of all time, "Pandemonium Shadow Show."

Friday, December 19, 2003


This was the last movie Helen Hayes made for almost 20 years; I don't know this one drove her into screen retirement, but it is no classic. It's an episodic melodrama with little to distinguish it from any other run-of-the-mill melodrama of its day. Hayes is Vanessa, daughter of Lewis Stone and granddaughter of May Robson (who is turning 100 as the film begin). Hayes is in love with a cousin, the dashing and slightly roguish Robert Montgomery, and he with her. However, Otto Kruger is also in love with Hayes; he's the opposite of dashing (and a little neurotic), but he's also a bit more respectable than Montgomery. Hayes and Montgomery are soon to be married when a tragic fire sweeps through her family house and claims her father's life. Montgomery saves her, but she thinks he deliberately didn't save her father--we know what she doesn't, that Stone was dead of a heart attack by the time Montgomery got to him. She tells him off and he goes on a bender, winding up married to a lusty barmaid. Over time, Hayes sees the error of her ways but gives in and marries Kruger, who is mentally ill (though that information is kept from Hayes--by this time, I was beginning to think they all lived in Pine Valley!). Montgomery becomes free, but by that time, Kruger has gone insane and she feels she cannot leave him. Despite being made during the Production Code era, the impression is definitely given that Hayes and Montgomery are rather openly carrying on an affair. In an abrupt ending, Kruger dies and Our Lovers can make it legal. There are lots of short scenes, almost tableaux, and after the first 20 minutes or so, the dramatic tension slackens. Also in the cast are Henry Stephenson, Donald Crisp, and Jessie Ralph. Produced by David Selznick and not his finest hour, although a few elements here would make their way into GONE WITH THE WIND (ill-starred lovers, dying soldiers, and a scene of two people standing silhouetted in the distance under a huge tree--remember Scarlett and her father early in the movie?).

Thursday, December 18, 2003


A moody opening (reminiscent of GREAT EXPECTATIONS) is the best thing about this routine pirate melodrama which plays out like a cross between JAMAICA INN and a Disney kid's adventure. Young orphan Jon Whiteley is sent to the town of Moonfleet, a British coast town, to be taken care of by town squire Stewart Granger who, despite his respectable trappings, is also the head of a local smuggling ring. Most of the story is seen through the boy's eyes as Granger's men (including Melville Cooper and Sean McClory) become figures of menace when Whiteley finds a code that leads to the discovery of a missing valuable jewel. Viveca Lindfors is underused as Granger's lover; also underused are George Sanders and Joan Greenwood as a scheming couple. Dancer Liliane Montevecchi has a sexy (if totally out of the blue) dance number. Scenes set in graveyards and secret passages are properly atmospheric but the film, like many 50's movies, is too bloated to be fun, or to be taken seriously. Directed by Fritz Lang using a widescreen process (which he was on record as despising).


Nifty B-mystery which begins quite effectively with a close-up of the face of Walter Abel--he is stumbling through a foggy park at night, disoriented and with a small head wound. He has amnesia and becomes convinced that he was involved in the murder earlier that night of a theaterical producer. With the help of an out-of-work actress (Margot Grahame) whom he meets in the park, Abel tries to figure out who he is and how he's tied to the murder. Some circumstantial evidence suggests that he is the dead man's chauffeur but after hooking up with a cop (Alan Hale) and a reporter (Wallace Ford) by pretending to be a reporter himself, Abel and Grahame begin to solve the puzzle. The solution involves the manuscript of a play and a writer who was being cheated out of money and credit. The strong supporting cast includes Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes, Leslie Fenton, and Ward Bond. I've always liked Abel, who usually played supporting roles (HOLIDAY INN, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE) and he makes a good B-lead here in one of his earliest movies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003


Spoilers included!
A superb WWI film; though it doesn't have the epic sweep or tone of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, it does have a strong anti-war message and is almost as powerful as the earlier, better known film. Fredric March is a pilot for the British Air Corps who becomes a "top gun" in the skies over France, heading several successful missions. He slowly becomes distressed as he loses a total of five "observers" during his flights, men who sit behind him and observe the ground for enemy information. Despite these losses of life, he is still hailed as a hero every time he returns, and this begins to temper his initial gung-ho attitude. Cary Grant is a fellow serviceman who doesn't cut it as a pilot and is relegated to observer status, causing some resentment between the two men. Jack Oakie is buddy to both men and tries to keep the peace. The growing disillusionment of all the men is shown--at first, they have a boyish, sporting ethusiasm for their job, but the growing death and destruction get to them all. When Grant kills a German who was parachuting from a burning plane, he is ostracized by the other men for not playing fair.

At one point, March is given a leave, visits Paris, and has a brief fling with Carole Lombard (billed as "The Beautiful Lady"), but when he returns his attitude isn't much better. Shocked at the youthfulness of the new pilots, he snaps completely when he shoots down a renowned German ace who turns out to be just a boy. March delivers an impassioned, if not totally coherent, anti-war speech at a drunken party given in his honor, then goes to his room and kills himself. Grant finds him and takes extraordinary measures to make sure his death is seen as brave and sacrificial. Grant is very good in a role unlike any others in his career. March is outstanding, especially in the last half. Oakie has an amusing line spoken to a young lady that probably could not have gotten in under the Production Code a year later: "You might be Fifi to the rest of the world, but you're nothing but Fanny to me." An excellent movie that deserves to be much better known. It doesn't crop up on cable, but it is available on video and worth seeking out.

Sunday, December 14, 2003


A notorious Poverty Row horror "classic" which feels in retrospect very much like a forerunner of the films of Ed Wood. Bela Lugosi is Dr. Carruthers, a seemingly kindly old doctor in a small town who, unbeknowest to the populace, has been experimenting with producing large mutant bats in his home laboratory--we're told this in an opening title card, the lazy, no-budget way of gettting exposition across. He's disgruntled because he feels cheated out of his share of the Heath cosmetics millions; he creates scents, but sold out his rights for cash years ago, and now gets no dividends from the company's success. His new scent is disguised as a men's shaving lotion, but it actually works to both attract and repel his giant bats, who hunt down and kill whoever is wearing it. A couple of times, the bat is effective, but mostly it's a ludicrous effect, looking like a tired buzzard on wires. Dave O'Brien, known more for the Dave Smith short comedy films of the 40's, is a wisecracking reporter; Donald Kerr, an uncredited bit player in hundreds of movies, is the gratingly silly photographer One-Shot McGuire; Suzanne Kaaren is the lame female lead. The sets are cheap, the acting mostly third-rate. Lugosi is OK, except when he continues to exaggeratedly intone, "Good-BYE!" to his future victims as he gives them the shaving lotion. This has become famous as one of Lugosi's worst movies, though it's not quite as bad as his Ed Wood films of the 50's. Too bad that MST3K never got their hands on this one.

Friday, December 12, 2003


A minor entry from the classic era of film noir. The first few minutes set up the situation: Steve Brodie is a trucker with a new wife (Audrey Long) and a fledgling independent business. Raymond Burr, an acquaintance from years ago, hires Brodie for what seems to be a routine job but which actually ends up as a heist. Once Brodie realizes what's happening, he tries to back out but not before the whole thing goes bad: a cop is shot and Burr's kid brother is arrested and charged with murder. Burr tries to force Brodie to take the rap by threatening to get his wife, but Brodie and Long manage to get out of town. Most of the rest of the movie follows their progress from city to farmland (where they stay briefly with Long's family) to the West Coast, where Burr finally catches up with him on the night of the brother's execution. The highlight of the movie is an archetypal noir scene of torture (Burr beating up Brodie) beneath a swinging bare light bulb in a dark basement. There are a few other visual treats as well, including the climax which takes place on an apartment stairwell. There's a surreal moment when Brodie hides in a truck filled with gigantic carnival faces. Douglas Fowley is a detective Burr hires to find Brodie; Jason Robards Sr. is a cop who isn't sure whom to believe. The lead couple is rather bland, but Burr is very creepy. Directed by Anthony Mann, known for his noirs and westerns.

Thursday, December 11, 2003


Because this feels so much like Ernst's Lubitsch's classic TROUBLE IN PARADISE, it's bound to come off as a sort of poor cousin to that film, but this has some charms of its own, primarily in the chemistry of the romantic leads. In Vienna, bored rich Kay Francis is getting an expensive diamond ring as a gift from her husband, the Baron (Henry Kolker). While in the jewelry store with him (and her young lover, Hardie Albright), suave and daring jewel thief William Powell shows up with a large gang of assistants and cleans out the store; he holds them all at gunpoint but is charming and gentlemanly about the whole thing. He even gets a security guard (Spencer Charters) to help him (unwittingly) get the gems out to his getaway car. Francis flirts with Powell; she's attracted by Powell's looks and daring, but she also wants her ring back. He locks everyone up but her and she lets him escape, claiming later to the police that she fainted. Powell sneaks into Francis' bedroom and returns the ring while also planning to stash the gems in her safe until the heat dies down, but his plans appear to be dashed when a detective (Alan Mowbray) catches him trying to escape out the window. However, things are not quite as they appear and ultimately, Powell gets away scot-free to France and the married Francis, in the very last shot of the film, lets us know she'll be joining him.

The first 20 minutes or so drag a bit as the characters of Francis and her group are set up, but when Francis and Powell are on screen together, they keep things interesting. This is the absolute model of a pre-Code film, with the thief getting away and the married lady having affairs and going unpunished. Most surprsingly, however, is the importance of marijuana to the plot. Powell hands out "drugged" cigarettes to keep folks off-guard, and they are clearly filled with pot. They make people dizzy and happy; the smokers eventually fall asleep and wake up with healthy appetites. The funniest scene in the film has the disgraced security guard getting high with the chief of police (Clarence Wilson). Helen Vinson plays Francis' best friend and has a few good lines, though generally she is underused. Ruth Donnelly has a small role as a maid. Despite a few Lubitsch-like touches, this is not as frothy or "sophisticated" as the genuine article, but it's certainly likeable and a must-see for any fans of Powell or Francis.

Monday, December 08, 2003


This WWII B-thriller from Twentieth Century Fox is a mixed bag, certainly not as scrappy or light on its feet as a similar Warner Brothers film would be. Dana Andrews is a foreign correspondent (in Berlin, of course) in November, 1941, just before the Americans enter the war. He gets tips about German troop movements and "smuggles" them over the airwaves in code so his newspaper is able to get a string of exclusive stories. Gestapo captain Martin Kosleck enlists his own fiancee (Virginia Gilmore) to figure out how Andrews is getting his information, but she is unaware that the spy helping Andrews is none other than her own father (Erwin Kalser) who seems to be just a harmless stamp collector. Kalser is put in a concentration camp then transfered to an asylum; Andrews poses as a Nazi to get him out, but that's only the beginning of his troubles. Kosleck's jealous secretary (Mona Maris) throws monkey wrenches into everyone's plans. The movie has a vaguely uncomfortable mix of tension and humor, starting with a running gag about how easy it is for Andrews to outfox whoever is assigned to tail him. At one point, when Andrews starts talking about putting Kosleck on trial, the Gestapo man replies, "Court? Trial? My dear man, this is *Germany*!" Gilmore, who had a short career at Fox as a B-film actress, looks a little like June Lockhart. Short (70 minutes) and filled with incident, but not as fun as it should be.

Saturday, December 06, 2003


The first in B-movie series spun off from the Dead End Kids, done by Universal. Billy Halop is Johnny, a kid from a working class neighborhood in New York City; his father, while working as a scab, accidentally kills a cop during a wild fracas. With the father in jail, the family moves to a lower-class area and Halop gets in with a gang of street toughs, including Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, and David Gorcey. They all wind up "adopted" by a snooty rich kid (Jackie Searl) who craves a taste of danger and helps the kids pull off a small scale crime spree. Halop briefly winds up in a reform school but the gang breaks him out. When one of the kids is killed by police gunfire, the whole group ends up in reform school, including Searl. The ending implies that they are all are indeed getting reformed and on their ways to solid, productive futures--what other ending was possible in those days? Peggy Stewart is a girl from the old neighborhood who remains sweet on Halop. A drab, lifeless actor named Robert Wilcox is the drab, lifeless "hero" who is sweet on Halop's sister and tries to help the family out. Marjorie Main is not at her best as Halop's miserable whining mother. A few more Little Tough Guys movies followed, but I don't think I need to see any others.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


An totally fictional account of how radio became a mass medium. The movie begins in a sprightly and humorous way but, like many Fox musicals of the era, it gets bogged down when it tries to get serious around the halfway point. John Payne is a young WWI vet who has just failed at his first business, a small airport; he meets up with enterprising Jack Oakie who has ideas about using radio as a vehicle for entertainment. With financial backing from Cesar Romero, they begin broadcasting live music and boxing matches to a citywide audience, eventually building to a nationwide network. Oakie's singer girlfriend, Alice Faye, falls for Payne (given the choice between Payne and Oakie, who wouldn't?) which leads to a falling-out between the buddies. Oakie & Romero hit it rich--Payne and Faye get married, but when she goes behind Payne's back to get some money from Romero for their enterprise, proud Payne leaves her. All are reconciled by the end in a number that might have influenced the end of HOLIDAY INN. We see quick clips of Jack Benny and Kate Smith in the beginning; the Nicholas Brothers do a spectacularly athletic dance number and the comic Weire Brothers do songs and jokes, including a very funny ad for Chapman's Cheerful Cheese. Despite the downturn in the last half, this is worth watching, especially for fans of Faye and Payne. Even Oakie is a little less obnoxious than usual. One complaint--the period detail (supposedly the 20's) is virtually non-exisistent.

Monday, December 01, 2003

CRACK-UP (1946)

A noirish thriller with potential, rendered somewhat bland due to the two male leads, Pat O'Brien and Herbert Marshall. O'Brien plays an expert on art and art forgeries who works for the Manhattan Museum. Early in the film, we see him come crashing into the lobby of the museum, apparently drunk, smashing some windows and a sculpture. After he is subdued, he claims that the last thing he remembers was escaping a dangerous train wreck, but there is no report of any train accident that night. He loses his job but is determined, with the help of Claire Trevor, to get to the bottom of his predicament. The scene in which he boards the train in an attempt to recreate what happened to him the night of the supposed accident is suspenseful and plays out very nicely. It turns out that some forgers at the museum who want O'Brien out of the way are behind his unusual experience (and the explanation of that experience is clever, if a bit far-fetched). Herbert Marshall plays an ill-defined character on the sidelines who, it turns out, works for Scotland Yard. Ray Collins is the chief bad guy and Wallace Ford is a cop. The plot partially turns on the dichotomy between high art and popular art, in a way similiar to how many 40's musicals played on the split between classical music and modern jazz.

Saturday, November 29, 2003


I will make no double entendre pun on the title and simply note that no matter what meaning of "gay" you apply, none seem quite right as a way to describe the bride in this movie, Carole Lombard, a minxy, gold digging show girl out to marry for money alone. She gets gangster Nat Pendleton, who has helped finance her Broadway show, to marry her, then goes about fleecing him by draining his bank account, not realizing that he's not as rich as she assumed. Chester Morris is Pendleton's assistant (he goes by the name Office Boy) who stays clean and legal and who figures out right quick what Lombard is up to. Pendleton winds up getting bumped off and Lombard takes up with the man responsible (Sam Hardy); when he gets his, she gravitates toward another alpha thug, Leo Carillo. Along the way, she and Morris have an antagonistic but bantering relationship, which in movies like this means that they wind up together at the end. Zasu Pitts is Lombard's friend; Gene Lockhart, in only his second sound film, has a small uncredited role, as does Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson. There's an elaborate musical number, "Mississippi Honeymoon" that is really the high point of the film. Morris is fine, but I remain unimpressed with Lombard--I think she was fine in NOTHING SACRED, but otherwise I'm not a big fan of hers. The movie, though made after the implementation of the Production Code, has a pre-Code morality feel to it. While it's classified as a comedy, and does have a light tone, it's not very funny, perhaps partly because it's rather difficult to warm up to any of the characters.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003


This is one of Judy Garland's last "young starlet" pictures before she became an adult superstar in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS the next year. Garland plays the title character, a small town girl who dreams of being a great actress, and who "acts" in real life whenever possible. Her big chance comes when producer Van Heflin visits town to see his mother (Fay Bainter); Garland pesters him incessently and even hitchhikes to Manhattan to get him to cast her in a new play. Richard Carlson is the playwright and Martha Eggerth is the tempermental star who is involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with Heflin. Garland does land a small part, getting inspiration from Connie Gilchrist, a cleaning lady at the theater who once had her own dreams of being a star. Eggerth eventually quits the show and Garland, in a 42ND STREET move, is pegged to replace her, but things don't quite work out and she winds up in a tiny one-line part.

The studio (MGM) must have decided that audiences would react badly to such a relatively downbeat ending, because they undercut it with a finale that features Garland as the star of an elaborate musical number which seems to be taking place either in her imagination or in the future. Garland gets a few good songs, such as a swing version of "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son," and the "Broadway Rhythm" finale. The first half, set in small town Indiana, is fun, even if Garland's character gets irritating in her quest for attention. Spring Byington is Garland's mother who comes to NYC to see her debut; Ray McDonald, a spirited young man who never got a big break yet is always fun to watch (BABES ON BROADWAY, GOOD NEWS), is wasted as Garland's small town boyfriend; Douglas Croft is Garland's doorknob-stealing little brother--the same year, he played Robin in the BATMAN movie serial. Janet Chapman, a Shirley Temple wannabe, is the little sister. Bob Crosby (Bing's brother) appears with his band and I was amazed how much he sounds like Bing. The most amusing scene has Richard Carlson evesdropping on Garland and Chapman performing a scene from a play which he thinks is a real conversation about how Heflin has gotten Garland "in trouble." Worth a viewing, but not terribly memorable.

Monday, November 24, 2003


My own preferences in WWII movies are either homefront narratives or the propaganda-laden movies from early in the war (set both at home and overseas). But this combat film from later in the war, set entirely on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, is entertaining and interesting. The movie presents itself as a true story, though it seems to be, at best, a composite of several different possible real-life scenarios. As the U.S. public, months after Pearl Harbor, waits and wonders why the Navy hasn't retaliated against the Japanese in the Pacific, the men on one carrier are even more frustrated when they get orders *not* to engage the Japanese in the air, no matter what. It turns out that ship is a decoy, being sent from place to place in the South Pacific to make the enemy think that the American fleet is weak, scattered, and disorganized, while the Navy is actually building up for the battle of Midway. Don Ameche is the commander of the ship and Dana Andrews is the leader of the pilots. There are occasional clashes between men, often due to movie star turned flyboy William Eythe, but by and large, the cliches of the "men in wartime" movies are avoided (or, perhaps, just hadn't been established yet). One kid, Kevin O'Shea (who made 3 movies in 1944, then seems to have left the business) is grounded due to health problems both physical and mental, but gets a chance to redeem himself in the end. Richard Jaekel, Henry Morgan, and Glenn Langan (more well known as THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN in the late 50's) are in the cast; Cedric Hardwicke has a small role in the beginning as an admiral. There's a scene in which the men watch a clip of Betty Grable from TIN PAN ALLEY. The climactic battle, when they are finally allowed to retaliate, is presented mostly over the radio, broadcast throughout the ship. Some authentic carrier footage adds to the atmophere. Quite good--a notch above the average, at least--and Ameche is especially fine playing a bit against type as the stoic commander.

Thursday, November 20, 2003


The first half of this movie and the last few minutes are quite good, but most of the middle is deadly dull, making this not quite the classic that its reputation would suggest. It's based on a play, though it works best when it's opened up beyond its stagy and melodramatic roots. Sir Guy Standing is a duke who is holding a weekend house party for a visiting dignitary, Prince Sirki; as the film opens, the prince hasn't arrived yet and two cars full of arriving guests, racing their way through the night, feel a mysterious shadow pass over them just before an accident in which, miraculously, no one is hurt. Later, in the best scene in the film, Death, as a dark-robed Grim Reaper figure, visits the Duke. As the title suggests, Death has decided to take a holiday among the living to find out why he is so feared. Prince Sirki has died and Death takes his form (Fredric March). He is appropriately ill at ease at first in human interaction, but soon warms to the guests, especially Grazia (Evelyn Venable). Two other women, Katharine Alexander and Gail Patrick, set their sights on the prince, but it is Venable who is mesmerized by him without understanding why. At the end of his holiday, the question is, will March take Venable with him as he returns to the infinite. The sets are beautiful and the photography is striking, especially in the first half hour when shadows are used quite well. The romance plot feels like DRACULA in mood, with the death-obsessed woman fascinated by a charming but deadly male. The special effects used for Death's first appearance are great, making Death a paradoxical figure of both dark solidity and transparency. Henry Travers, more famous as the supernatural Clarence in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, plays a house guest. Kent Taylor plays Venable's boyfriend, who really doesn't stand much of a chance against the mysterious prince. Despite the doldrums of the middle, the film is worth seeing, and is available (though currently out of print) on DVD in a package with the recent Brad Pitt remake, MEET JOE BLACK.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003


My *second* Will Rogers movie, and more fun than JUDGE PRIEST. I find Mark Twain's novel rather heavy-going, but this is a delightful movie. I still don't see Rogers as much of an actor, but when he gets off his dry zingers, he usually hits the mark. He plays the owner of a radio repair shop (and radio station) in a small Connecticut town--we first see him as he introduces a vocal group on the air who sing "Times Are Hard, But So's Your Old Man." On a stormy night, Rogers has to deliver some parts to a creepy mansion; while there, he meets an eccentric group of folks. One young man (Frank Albertson) is dressed up in a suit of armor, chasing a young woman (Maureen O'Sullivan) around the house. Another woman (Myrna Loy) seems to be after both of them. The wacky patriarch (William Farnum) claims to have invented a machine that can tune into sound waves from the past. Soon after Rogers hears what seems to be a message about King Arthur, a suit of armor falls on him. He is knocked out and dreams that he's back in Camelot and the various family members (as in WIZARD OF OZ) are present as well: Farnum is the King, Loy is Morgan Le Fay, etc. Rogers uses his knowledge of future events and technology to become Sir Boss and he introduces telephones, cars, guns, and tanks, and eventually a bomb with which to fight the evil Loy.

The sets and costumes are fine, especially in the creepy old house at the beginning. There are some amusing lines: On arrival, Rogers asks the Camelot citizens, "Canst tellest me where in the helleth I am?" There are jabs at topics such as government, warfare, and business, and Rogers says that advertising is what "makes you spend money you haven't got for things you don't want." (Guess there's nothing new under the sun!) Rogers' best acting is when he uses his foreknowledge of a solar eclipse to appear to be conjuring the eclipse himself. He also gets to lasso a knight during a tourney. Loy and Albertson are good, but O'Sullivan doesn't have much to do. The bitter tone of Twain's finale is carried over here, although the ending, back at the old house where Rogers discovers why everyone was acting strange, is upbeat. Overall, grand fun and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 16, 2003


My first Will Rogers movie, though because I saw a very poor quality public domain print of this. I'm not sure I should even be reviewing it. The image was murky and there were several jagged cuts where footage seemed to be missing. Rogers, a beloved folksy humorist, plays a beloved folksy judge in a small town in Kentucky. We get a sense of his everyday life in the casual opening section of the film. Rogers' nephew, played by Tom Brown, comes home with a newly minted law degree. He's in love with Anita Louise, a girl of questionable background, and Brown's mother (Brenda Fowler, who seems to be doing an Edna May Oliver imitation without much success) frowns on the match. Luckily, Rogers is on Brown's side and helps to clear the way for Brown to court Louise. There is a lovely summer evening scene where Rogers recalls his late wife (with one of my favorite songs, "Love's Old Sweet Song," playing in the background). Eventually, the rather unsavory man who fathered Louise (David Landau) is charged with attacking another unsavory man, Frank Melton, and Brown becomes Landau's lawyer. The somewhat incoherent ending dashes any real resolution for a sentimental finale in which a minster invokes love, forgiveness, and the Confederacy, and a "Music Man"-like parade ends the film. Henry B. Walthall and Charley Grapewin are also in the cast. Rogers doesn't seem like much of an actor, coming off like an ameteurish mixture of Andy Griffith and Lionel Barrymore, but I assume this laconic acting style was part and parcel of his overall comic persona. Landau is good, as usual, in creating a mean character you love to hate, though his character is redeemed in the end. There are some cringe-inducing black stereotypes, personified by Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel, and sadly, McDaniel isn't able to transcend her badly written part as she usually does. Still, an interesting chunk of period Americana.

Thursday, November 13, 2003


A traditional morality tale that runs the gamut from Cecil DeMille (sexy fire and brimstone trappings) to James Cameron (some soapy melodrama right out of TITANIC). Spencer Tracy is a coal shoveler on a ship who has ambitions for a better life. After getting fired, Tracy gets a job at a carnival helping out Henry B. Walthall, the owner of an attraction called Dante's Inferno. Basically, Walthall dresses up in a black robe and in a cheap Hell-like setting, preaches to his customers, but soon Tracy revamps the whole thing into a spectacular recreation of the various circles of Hell and it becomes a big hit. In a few years, he has married Walthall's daughter (Claire Trevor) and is raking in the bucks as the owner of an amusement company. When an inspector tells Tracy that his Inferno is unsafe and needs major repairs, Tracy bribes him to keep quiet; that night, the attraction collapses, killing some visitors and seriously injuring Walthall. At the old man's bedside, Tracy has a vision of Hell that scares him for a time, but does not lead to any substantial change in his character. Trevor lies for Tracy at a court hearing on the accident, then leaves him, taking their son (Scotty Beckett). The Titanic-like climax of the film takes place on the maiden voyage of Tracy's new offshore gambling liner; with Tracy's boy on board, the ship catches fire, causing much panic and putting Beckett in danger. Will this be Tracy's tragedy or redemption? Tracy is fine, as usual, as are Trevor and Walthall, though they aren't given much to do. The real attraction here is the "vision of Hell" sequence, filled with special effects, cool sets, and half-naked sinners writhing in agony. Most of it, or even all of it, consists of footage from an old silent movie, but it is integrated well. Also notable for a brief but impressive appearance by Rita Hayworth (when she was still billed as Rita Cansino) as a fiery dancer on the doomed liner.

Sunday, November 09, 2003


A very enjoyable second-feature action film that spawned a brief series starring Ronald Reagan as pilot Brass Bancroft. In this film, he's a commercial cargo pilot with a yen to be a government spy. He gets his chance when an agent on the track of an illegal alien smuggling ring is found dead, dumped out of a plane over a desert, along with several other men. The midair dumping scene is startlingly graphic for a 30's film, though the slow motion involved gives it an artificial feel. James Stephenson is the head of the smuggling ring; John Ridgely is the pilot who sends the men to their deaths. Reagan is recruited for spy work, framed for a crime by the Feds, and put in prison to make contact with a man assumed to be part of the ring. They break out and Reagan gets a job with Stephenson in an attempt to catch the bad guys red-handed. Eddie Foy Jr. does a surprisingly good job in a comic relief sidekick role as a co-pilot. B-movie workhorse John Litel is fine as Reagan's boss. A couple of handsome Warner Brothers B-film stock players, Anthony Averill and Larry Williams, are present; a bland blonde named Ila Rhodes is the leading lady but really only has a small part--romance is, at best, only a secondary concern for Brass Bancroft. The hour-long film plays out like a serial which has been cut down to the bare minimum with good action and fisticuff scenes, but some missing plot points. Good fun for those who don't expect too much.

Friday, November 07, 2003


Mediocre RKO musical which established once and for all that opera singer Lily Pons would never be a movie star. Pons plays Suzette, a singer with a pop band headed by boyfriend John Howard (Kittridge in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY). Her dream is to sing opera, but Howard keeps her away from her goal. A promoter, Jack Oakie, has a scheme to help her: he takes her to Africa and passes her off as Oogahunga, a legendary bird girl to be discovered by opera lover Edward Everett Horton. Back in New York she keeps up a double life, singing with Howard and preparing to make her opera debut with Horton's backing. Eric Blore, a clarinet player, sees an opening and makes a public claim to be the bird girl's father. Subterfuge and double crosses abound. I think there was a happy ending for all concerned, but frankly I lost interest in following the convoluted plot. Pons and Oakie both lack charisma; Horton and Blore provide a couple of good moments, and Howard has some potential in the beginning as a romantic leading man, but the movie loses steam quickly. The "fake bird girl" idea isn't bad; perhaps Fred & Ginger could have pulled it off. There is one good song, "Let's Give Love Another Chance," but that's not enough for me to be able to recommend the movie. Directed by Raoul Walsh, who was better with his later tough-guy pictures (THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT).

Tuesday, November 04, 2003


A wartime B-picture with mostly squandered potential--MGM or Warners could have done more with it. Chester Morris is "Foxy" Pattis, a lowlife fellow whose former friend (Richard Arlen) has become a district attorney whom Morris holds responsible for his father's death. Arlen enlists in the Army Air Corps and Morris is drafted; naturally, they both wind up at the same flight gunnery school. Morris is in charge of training a group of men including Arlen, Jimmy Lydon as a delicate kid whose father was killed at Pearl Harbor, and Dick Purcell as a guy with a knack for mechanics. The animosity between Morris and Arlen grows, especially when they both vie for Lydon's sister, Lita Ward (not a looker even by B-movie standards). Lydon can't quite cut it in training and dies in an accident during maneuvers. Ward blames Morris and cozies up to Arlen. Finally, in the South Pacific in real combat, after an inspiring speech from the doomed Keith Richards (rather handsome and no relation to the Rolling Stone), the men are put in a situation where one chooses to sacrifice himself for the other. Arlen is awfully stiff and romantically uninspiring. Morris, heading toward middle age, looks good in an Army buzz cut and does a fine job given the limitations of the writing and production--it's too bad he didn't get more soldier roles--although I confess I kept thinking the film would be more interesting with Errol Flynn or Dennis Morgan. Robert Mitchum has a good scene early on as a rival of Morris's.

Sunday, November 02, 2003


A whimsical romance, shot in gauzy soft-focus with some nice trimmings along the way but not much substance. Gene Raymond is a zookeeper in Budapest; he's a bit on the youthful eccentric side, always in trouble for punishing folks who don't take the animals seriously, like when he steals a fur from a visiting woman. Loretta Young is an orphan, just turned 18 and about to be forced into work; she's been planning an escape during one of the orphanage's zoo trips and finally her friends talk her into going through with it. Raymond, who has been flirting with her for some time, helps her hide after closing hours. Complicating things for the couple is a child who escapes from his nanny and gets lost in the zoo. Soon a full-scale search for all three is underway and in the last third, the movie becomes sort of an animal disaster film with maurauding tigers threatening our trio, along with a disgruntled co-worker of Raymond's (Paul Fix). Raymond looks the part, all blondness and smiles, and Young is fine, but the whimsey that should be applied with a light touch winds up feeling awfully forced. O. P. Heggie is the zoo director who has some empathy for Raymond; Margaret Hamilton has a couple of lines as the orphanage director's assistant. The cinematography is nice, giving the film a unique fairy tale atmosphere, but the whole thing is too heavy-handed to really succeed.

Friday, October 31, 2003


This film was the highlight of my October viewing this year. Most critics don't care for it, but I liked it a lot, perhaps because my expectations were low. The movie is not a serial but is structured like one, with lots of fast-moving and episodic cliffhangers. The only real liability is lead actor Edmund Lowe, who is rather stiff and uninspiring. He plays Frank Chandler, an American who has spent years in India studying the way of the Yogi. He is renamed Chandu by his teacher and sent back into the world to deal with the threatening evil of Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who has kidnapped Henry B. Walthall, the maker of a powerful "death ray"--although why a gentle old "good guy" would have spent years inventing a death ray is never explained. Walthall refuses, even under torture, to give Lugosi the last bits of information needed to make the ray operative. The scientist's family comes under attack by Lugosi's henchmen and it's up to Chandu to save the day. He's accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (Herbert Mundin) who is amusing for about five minutes, but soon becomes a real pain in the ass. Along the way, Chandu also meets up with an exotic past lover (Irene Ware) and is saddled with Walthall's son (Nestor Aber) and daughter (Betty Vlasek) who eventually have to be rescued from evil clutches.

There are lots of nifty effects: Chandu can transport his astral self to give the appearance of being in two places at once; he causes Mundin to see a miniature version of himself whenever he starts to get drunk; a stone statue comes to life (quite a startling surprise); a cell floor opens up slowly, threatening the family with a long fall into a pit; Chandu turns guns into snakes (sort of a Charlton Heston-as-Moses thing) and vanishes from his clothes, leaving them standing empty in midair. Lugosi chews the scenery wonderfully; his overacting (entirely appropriate for the supervillain character) helps to compensate for Lowe's blandness. The most spectacular scene is when Lugosi imagines the destruction of New York and London with the death ray. Weldon Hayburn is Abdullah, Lugosi's darkly handsome henchman. Co-director William Cameron Menzies, famous for the production design of THINGS TO COME in 1936, was probably responsible for the interesting look of the film which must have had an impact on the Indiana Jones movies. Atmospheric, fast-paced, and fun. A serial spinoff was done a couple years later with Lugosi as Chandu, which I'm trying to track down.

Thursday, October 30, 2003


A B-movie sci-fi classic, mostly due to the grotesque title monsters which are invisible until the last 20 minutes or so when they are unleashed in a gory (for its time) and somewhat cheesy climax. In a Canadian village near the U.S. border, people are mysteriously dropping dead with their spinal cords and brains sucked out of them. Some try to blame it on nuclear power experiments at a nearby Air Force base. Marshall Thompson is a major investigating the deaths and Kim Parker is his love interest, a local girl whose brother is gung ho against the Americans. The combination of a woodsy setting, paranoid locals, and a male-female "detective" duo gives the first part of the film an "X-Files" feel. Eventually we discover the culprit is Parker's boss, eccentric Professor Wingate (Kynaston Reeves), who is doing psychic research (we see a copy of a book called "Sibernetics" on his desk!).

It turns out that Reeves, by stealing power from the base, has created "thought creatures" which have gotten out of his control--shades of FORBIDDEN PLANET. When they're invisible, we can hear them as they wrap themselves around a victim's head and slurp away. When they become visible near the end of the film, they look like flying brains with attached spinal cords, or a little like gigantic sperm--shades of ERASERHEAD! The climax, with our heroes trapped in a house while the creatures attack, plays out like a cross between THE BIRDS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The fiends can be killed with bullets, which leads to a gorefest (albeit in black and white) of split and oozing "brains" all over the place. Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim from MGM's 1938 CHRISTMAS CAROL) is Thompson's sidekick. The chief engineer at the plant (played, I think, by E. Kerrigan Prescott) comes off like an 80's pop star, with an amazingly flamboyant hairdo. Thompson is a bit wooden, but not bad, and even a little sexy in his scenes with the even more wooden Parker. Nowadays, not all that scary or gory, but interesting as a pre-splatter era relic, and perhaps as an influence on a number of later films.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003


One of Boris Karloff's last movies, very loosely based on a Lovecraft story, "Dreams in the Witch House." The opening is set at a Satanic ritual, lit with deep reds and greens, with a man being forced to sign his soul over to the devil. The man is an antiques collector who was spending time in the village of Graymarsh. When he doesn't return home, his brother (Mark Eden) goes looking for him, arriving at the village during a festival commemorating the burning of a local witch hundreds of years ago. The atmosphere is decadence-lite; some of the people in this scene reminded me of the "unconventional conventioneers" in ROCKY HORROR. Eden stays at a lodge run by Christopher Lee; he cozies up to Lee's lovely daughter (Virginia Wetherall) and meets a creepy old professor who is confined to a wheelchair (Boris Karloff). Eden has bad dreams involving Satanic rituals before he discovers what happened to his brother. The climax involves more rituals, Barbara Steele in green body paint, a plump-assed half-naked man squeezed into a bad S&M outfit, and some fire. Despite its bad reputation, this is no worse than the typical Hammer film of the period. You could certainly do worse. Karloff is no longer robust, but he turns in a good performance. Steele has few, if any, lines. Michael Gough is a creepy butler who winds up dead for no discernible reason. Aka THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR.

Sunday, October 26, 2003


A nifty little Poverty Row thriller; if not really all that thrilling, at least interesting to watch. John Carradine gives perhaps the best performance of his career as puppeteer Gaston Morrell; living in Paris, he puts on elaborate puppet shows in the public park and does some painting on the side. We discover that he is compelled by some psychological quirk to seek out beautiful women to paint, then kill, dumping their bodies in the Seine. Jean Parker strikes up a friendship with Carradine and eventually figures out his secret, but not before her sister (who has been working with the police as a decoy) becomes his latest victim, and not before she herself winds up in danger. There is an unusual interlude featuring an operatic puppet version of Faust that has nothing to do with the film or its themes, that I could see. Directed by cult figure Edgar G. Ulmer with an expressionistic look and cockeyed camera angles during flashbacks (that reminded me of the way the action scenes in the 60's TV show "Batman" were shot). Nils Asther (on the downcurve of his career) plays the chief inspector; Ludwig Stossel is an art dealer who plays an important role in the plot developments. The background music often feels inappropriate, as though chosen at random from someone's classical music collection. As in many of the sub-B films of the era, the writing is shoddy and underdeveloped, but the look and feel of the movie make it watchable. Carradine, who certainly chewed the scenery in many of his supporting roles in big studio films, is the soul of discretion here, never overplaying a part that could have easily gone over-the-top. Often categorized as a horror film, but more a mood piece.

Friday, October 24, 2003


In his film guide, Leslie Halliwell calls this "Topper without laughs," and I couldn't describe it better. Warner Baxter is a businessman who is vacationing with his wife (Andrea Leeds) in the mountains. He is called back to town by his trusted assistant (Henry Wilcoxon) to take care of an important matter, but it turns out that Wilcoxon's wife (Lynn Bari), an old flame of Baxter's, forged the telegram. She wants to leave Wilcoxon and rekindle their affair. Baxter turns her down and she shoots him dead in his apartment. Wilcoxon, who comes upon the scene, takes the blame and stands trial, but Baxter's restless ghost (who doesn't realize right away that he's actually dead) tries to influence the proceedings so that justice is done. Charley Grapewin is a ghostly angel figure who carries a Bible and serves as a (not terribly helpful) guide to Baxter, who comes to realize that he is now "a dead man haunted by the living," a theme which has been explored by recent films like THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS. The ghost effects are pretty good, though Baxter is rather wooden and perhaps just a bit long in the tooth to be fought over with such passion by two lovely young women. Also with Elizabeth Patterson and Ian Wolfe. Interesting, mostly because it doesn't seem to be very well known; it would have been a better movie if the Wilcoxon and Grapewin characters had been more fleshed out. A remake of a 1920 silent film. Fox Movie Channel is showing it this month.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003


This thriller, top heavy with comic relief, is often categorized alongside the classic horror films of the 30's, but there's nothing supernatural here and, once you get past the first two minutes, there's not much that's truly creepy. In the famous first scene, we see big game hunter Lionel Atwill in a jungle, sewing shut the lips of a young man whom Atwill suspects of flirting with his wife (Kathleen Burke) and leaving him to the tender mercies of the wild animals. The shot of the victim running directly at the camera, wide-eyed and trying to scream, is truly shocking and surprisingly graphic--the scene would almost certainly never have been allowed under the Production Code of two years later. But soon the movie settles down into a fairly run-of-the-mill suspense story, set at an American zoo where Atwill is a major benefactor. His wife strikes up a casual relationship with handsome John Lodge (later the studly Count Alexei in THE SCARLET EMPRESS). When Atwill finds out, it's clear Lodge will be the next to die--and he is, apparently bitten by a black mambo snake at a fancy catered dinner at the zoo. But why can no one find that pesky snake? Charlie Ruggles, as the zoo's alcoholic PR director, finds his job hanging in the balance unless the killer is caught. I normally like Ruggles, but here, his comic relief completely drains the picture of the tension that Atwill and the director A. Edward Sutherland work so hard to achieve. Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick are the romantic leads, and ultimately instrumental in capturing Atwill, but not before he strikes one more time. This is not a bad movie at all, but if you go into it expecting it to be the equal of any of the Universal classics of the era, you'll be disappointed.

Saturday, October 18, 2003


This unsung B-thriller, also known as TASTE OF FEAR, is surprisingly entertaining. It doesn't take long to realize that the story has its roots in the French classic DIABOLIQUE, but that doesn't spoil enjoyment of the film. Susan Stasberg is a wheelchair-bound woman visiting her father, whom she hasn't seen in years. He lives on the French Rivera with his second wife (Ann Todd) whom Strasberg has never met. When she arrives, the father is off on a business trip and Todd welcomes her warmly. That night, Strasberg sees what seems to be the dead body of her father seated in a sun room. Over the next few days, more sightings occur until Strasberg begins to fear that either her father really is dead, or that she is losing her sanity. Other characters include a town doctor (Chistopher Lee) and a handsome chauffer (Ronald Lewis) who both seem to be trying to help Strasberg find her father (but who is really helping and who is really hindering?). The "Diabolique" twist occurs, but the movie has a couple more tricks up its sleeve, one of which I definitely did not see coming. The movie has a nice black and white look and the house is pretty cool, set around an outdoor courtyard. We get to see the hunky Lewis in a very skimpy bathing suit (oh, those randy Riverians!). It's a Hammer film, but doesn't feel or look at all like one. Well worth seeing, twice if possible. BTW, neither title makes any particular sense.

Thursday, October 16, 2003


Warner Brothers largely sat out the horror trend of the 30's but this one makes me wish they had done a few more. It's part gangster movie, part horror thriller, with a dash of grim spirituality. Ricardo Cortez is a lawyer, and the ringleader of a gang of well-heeled gangsters who issue an anonymous death threat against a judge if he rules against a gang member. The judge finds the defendent guilty and the gang murders the judge, pinning the crime on ex-con Boris Karloff, a hulking and simple-minded but gentle man. Just before Karloff's execution, a couple of witnesses (Marguerite Churchill & Warren Hull) finally come forward, but Cortez fixes it so the news doesn't reach the authorities until just after the switch has been pulled on Karloff. However, Churchill's boss, Edmund Gwenn, a doctor, uses the experimental Lindbergh Heart to resuscitate Karloff. He returns to life with almost no memories but he does seem to have a mission: to bring the real killers to justice. One by one, he visits the gang members and, though never directly killing them, does bring about their deaths.

Karloff, with his shorn hair, looks younger than I've ever seen him. There are many references to his role as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN, including his electrified revival in a lab; Gwenn echoing Colin Clive's "It's alive!"; and an Elsa Lanchester white streak in Karloff's hair when he is reanimated. Karloff's execution is shot well, with a single cello player seated in the shadows and playing at Karloff's request as he heads to the chair. A later scene, of Karloff playing piano to a roomful of invited guests including the gang members, is also effective. The young lovers (Churchill & Hull) seem especially callow here, with little reason given for their refusal to speak up on Karloff's behalf, and no reason at all given for their later decision to do so. Cortez is good, as is Gwenn in a limited role, but Karloff is excellent, with his truly creepy faraway trance-like stare after his revival. Gwenn wishes that Karloff could tell more about the afterlife, and the possibility is presented that Karloff is actually on a mission from God, or whatever is on the other side. Short, atmospheric, and unique.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003


A B-movie remake of 1933's THE KENNEL MURDER CASE with the addition of wartime spies. The nifty opening sequence, set in Vienna, seems to promise an atmospheric spy thriller, but after the first ten minutes, the movie settles down to a more typical B-budget locked-room mystery. Philo Vance (James Stephenson) has been overseas trying to find out if American aircraft secrets are being sold to foreign governments, but he is caught and deported. Back in the U. S., the man with the aircraft secrets is murdered, apparently while locked in his windowless room. Vance investigates, and more murder and mayhem occur. Margot Stevenson is Hilda, a relative of the dead man. A dissipated looking Ralph Forbes and the sinister looking Martin Kosleck are suspects. There is a dog named Baron Munchausen and Vance has a terrier named McTavish who acts a lot like Lassie. The scenes where Vance is working out what happened, shot from the point of view of the killer, are well done, but overall the movie doesn't rise above its budget. Edward Brophy is OK as the requisite bumbling cop, but Margot Stevenson is terrible; she went on to do a few more movies in 1940, then basically left the business. James Stephenson, so good as Bette Davis' lawyer in THE LETTER, was fine in the title role, but his untimely death the next year halted any plans for a series.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

MAD LOVE (1935)

The rare MGM horror film that can be ranked with the best of the Universal horror films of the period. An atmospheric visual treat directed by Karl Freund (who, for Universal, directed THE MUMMY and was director of cinematography for DRACULA). Peter Lorre gives one of his best performances as Dr. Gogol, a surgeon with an obsession for Frances Drake, a performer at the Theatre of Horrors (inspired by the real life Grand Guignol). Lorre's a regular, watching from his box, and when Drake announces her retirement to spend more time with her husband, pianist Colin Clive, Lorre buys a wax statue of Drake that the theatre was going to melt down, and puts it in his chamber. An early scene of Lorre watching, with growing sadistic pleasure, Drake being tortured onstage, is quite creepy. Clive, a bit of a neurotic, as he is in most of his pictures, is in a train wreck; his hands are destroyed and Lorre amputates them, attaching the hands of an executed killer (Edward Brophy, normally known for his comic cops or thugs) who was handy with knives. Clive doesn't know his hands aren't *his* anymore, but he does notice that, while he can no longer play piano, he does seem to have a new fondness for knives and begins to think he's going insane.

The real story here isn't that of the pianist with the transplanted hands, but of the obsessed doctor, who hatches a plan to hasten Clive's insanity, hoping to get Drake by default. There are two spectacular scenes in the last half: one has Clive meeting a person he thinks is the beheaded knife killer come back to life, with a strapped-on head and robot-like hands; the climax has Drake in Lorre's rooms, breaking the stature of herself and standing in for it when Lorre returns. The shadowy sets are expressionistic, as in CALIGARI, and there's a lot of play with mirrors. A scene of a cockatoo flying (more or less) directly at the camera may have inspired a similar shot in CITIZEN KANE (Gregg Toland was a cinematographer for both films). There is some blah comic relief from Ted Healy that does not intrude on the somber mood too much. Keye Luke (one of Charlie Chan's sons) is Lorre's assistant. May Beatty has a couple of good moments as Lorre's addled maid who keeps the cockatoo on her shoulder. Drake looks good but is rather bland, but it's all Lorre's show, aided by Freund and Toland. Well worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

FAUST (1926)

F. W. Murnau's silent classic, based on a legendary tale made famous by Goethe, has some stunning fantasy/horror effects in the beginning, but it soon settles down into a rather humdrum romantic melodrama. The devil, Mephisto (Emil Jannings), and an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) are debating the nature of man and wind up making a bet: if Mephisto can corrupt the human Faust (Gosta Ekman), than the devil can have Faust and all of mankind. The devil descends onto a village, his bat-wing cloak enveloping the entire town, in a very spooky scene that must have influenced Disney's animators when they were concocting the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of FANTASIA. He brings the plague with him and Faust, a doctor, is overwhelmed by the horror and calls on the devil to help him. Mephisto gives Faust his youth back; Faust has an affair with the world's most beautiful woman (Hanna Ralph) and falls in love with the virginal Gretchen (Camilla Horn). In the meantime, the devil, now in a younger form as well, romances Gretchen's mother and aunt. Soon Faust sleeps with Gretchen; he is run out of town and she, pregnant without benefit of marriage, is put in the town stocks as punishment for her transgression. After she has her child, she is turned away by all the townspeople during a mighty snowstorm. She hallucinates a cradle in the snow and puts her baby in it; when the baby dies, she is condemned as a murderer and sentenced to die at the stake, setting the stage for Faust's attempt at redemption.

The visuals, in the areas of both effects and settings, are wonderous throughout. The conjuring of the devil at a crossroads, the devil's cloak scene, the flight of Faust and the devil around the world, and the burning of the words of the devil's contract into parchment are all carried off quite well. The younger Mephisto looks a bit like comic actor Eddie Izzard, and his reactions of nausea to the mass and to holy icons are amusing. Once Gretchen enters the scene, the movie slows down, but it does pick up a bit at the end. It is difficult for me to judge silent era acting, but everyone does a fine job, not seeming too overblown by today's standards. Generally, I would recommend this, especially for nighttime October viewing.

Monday, October 06, 2003


A par-for-the-course Monogram thriller, not the worst of the sub-B films of the era, but not the best. Bela Lugosi plays a professor of criminal psychology who seems to have a decent reputation as a scholar; by night, using a different identity, he runs a charity mission in the Bowery that is actually a front for a crime ring. So Lugosi is playing one man with two names and three personas! The gang commits hold-ups but usually leaves a gang member or relatively unwitting confederate dead at the scene. Wanda McKay (quite colorless and charmless) is a young woman who works at the mission; John Archer plays the oldest college student in Christendom, a rich boy who is in Lugosi's class and happens to know McKay. He decides to go to the mission to do research on the psychology of the homeless and discovers Lugosi's secret. He is killed for his troubles, but in an incredibly underdeveloped plot thread, it turns out that Lew Kelly, an accomplice of Lugosi's, can bring the dead back to life as zombies, whom he keeps in a secret cellar room. Cop Dave O'Brien (who may be familiar from the Pete Smith comedy shorts) manages to break the ring up and, apparently, the zombies are all brought back from death to normal life. Lugosi is OK, but Tom Neal (B-movie star known primarily for his lead role in DETOUR a few years later) is actually quite good as a thug in a performance that wouldn't have been out of place in a better grade Warners crime film. An amusing line spoken to a guy with a gun: "Don't get gay just because you're handy with a heater!" Bernard Gorcey (father of Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey) plays a shopkeeper--and there's a Bowery Boys movie poster visible in one scene. The movie's plot has potential, but it's mostly wasted by sloppy writing and drab production values; the only real atmosphere the film has is due to Lugosi's scenery-chewing, and the zombies' occasional wanderings.

Sunday, October 05, 2003


In 17th century England, a farmer (Barry Andrews) is plowing a field when he uncovers a buried skull (with fur and a still-fresh eyeball in it). This news sweeps the countryside and apparently leads a rebellious group of adolescents, led by a lovely young woman named Angel (Linda Hayden), to begin worshipping the devil. A number of people wind up with patches of fur in strange places on their bodies, and in a plot development that wasn't terribly clear to me, the group of teenagers hunt these people down, cut the skin off, and uses these pieces to create a living Satan figure (or, perhaps, a resurrection or reanimation of the devil, if one believes that the skull belonged to the original Satan). Many townsfolk wind up deformed or dead. There is some gore and some nudity along the way (including a fairly powerful rape scene) to a silly climax wherein a judge (Patrick Wymark) who has not been very sympathetic for most of the film, turns good guy and slays the Beast with a sword. Not a very powerful Satan, I guess, more a secondary demon than The Devil. Overall, the film is too incoherent to be truly scary or much fun, though there are a few atmospheric moments. There are lots of shaggy-haired 70's-looking actors and a lot of drab exterior shooting. It's also been known as SATAN'S SKIN, which is a somewhat more accurate title.

Thursday, October 02, 2003


It's October again and time to focus on horror and sci-fi films. This one is a real classic. Actually, it's one of two classics that director John Brahm did with actor Laird Cregar (the other, HANGOVER SQUARE, I hope to review later this month). Based on a well-known pulp thriller from 1913, this is a fictionalized story of Jack the Ripper. During the height of the Ripper's reign of terror, Cregar, a mysterious doctor who specializes in pathology, comes to lodge at a respectable house run by husband and wife Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood (with lovely daughter Merle Oberon also living there). Slowly, we (along with Hardwicke and Allgood) come to suspect that Cregar may be the Ripper. At first, Cregar, who carries around an ominous black bag and conducts odd experiments in the attic, falls under some suspicion but the family trusts him and he begins to form an attachment to Oberon, a dance hall girl on the verge of bigger things. She seems to genuinely like Cregar as a friend, but is dallying with George Sanders, a Scotland Yard inspector who is on the Ripper's trail. Is Cregar the infamous killer, and is Oberon in trouble? Or is he a red herring? The spooky atmosphere, with lots of shadows and fog, is kept up throughout, along with many interesting stylistic touches, like shots framed by doors, or up and down stairs; a mirror motif is present as well, with one particularly creepy scene of Cregar and Oberon reflected in multiple mirrors. There's an amusing scene of Sanders flirting with Oberon as he takes her on a tour of the Black Museum, a place filled with dastardly crime and torture implements. The whole cast, especially Cregar, is fine, though Oberon isn't always successful as a common show girl. Very atmospheric; great October viewing.

Monday, September 29, 2003


A Poverty Row B-noir that can hold its own up against most any 40's B-film from Warners or RKO. In the opening, Dick Elliott plays a drunken conventioneer in a papier-mache lion's mask who carelessly throws around a lot of money at a hotel bar in Philadelphia. We see a man (from behind) chat up the drunk. Next morning, Elliott is found dead (in the lion mask) by the maid. Meanwhile, Kim Hunter, a young newlywed from Ohio, has arrived in New York City to meet her husband (Dean Jagger), a salesman who was supposed to show up there from Philadelphia. They married in a hurry, after only three dates, and when he doesn't show up, she confides in an old boyfriend (Robert Mitchum) who is coincidentally staying in the same hotel she's in. Jagger eventually shows up but is acting strange, like he's hiding something. The plot takes a few twists from there, some predictable, some not, to a satisfying ending.

For such a cheap and quickly made film, it looks pretty good, making the best of limited sets and a small cast. The single best set is of a Harlem dance club populated with many extras and a joyous dancing couple who get the spotlight for a minute, in a scene that really doesn't have much to do with the plot, but does add some interesting atmosphere. Noir conventions like jazzy music, dark streets, and blinking neon signs are present. The climax involves a Hitchcockian scene of a crucial letter stuck in a mail drop. The actors (who all went on to bigger things) are good, though the characterizations, especially of the two men, leave much to be desired, a problem of writing, not acting. In a nifty in-joke scene, Hunter uses a photo of the movie's director, William Castle, as a decoy for the cops. Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon on TV's "Batman") plays a cop; Elliott, the dead man, played the mayor of Mayberry on "The Andy Griffith Show." Not necessarily one to hunt down, but a pleasant surprise if you run across it on cable (as I did, on Encore Mystery).

Saturday, September 27, 2003


At the tail end of the pre-Code era came this interesting film (a little comedy, a lot of drama, and even some music) about a girl who seems to be bad but is really almost too good to be true. Joan Crawford is the daughter of a cook to a rich family; Franchot Tone is the rich son, a lawyer. Tone sees Crawford after a couple of years away and, in a plotline used years later in SABRINA, is swept off his feet. The light tone of their flirtation is shattered when Crawford, helping to serve dinner, overhears Tone badmouth her boyfriend (Gene Raymond) who was fired by the family because of suspicion of thievery. Crawford goes bananas and berates Tone at the dinner table, then storms out, heading to New York City with Raymond. They get a cheap apartment by saying that they're married, and in a scene that probably wouldn't have been possible a few months later when the Production Code was being enforced, we see Crawford and Raymond spending the night together--at the fadeout, she's in bed and he's in a chair, but still...

The next day, they both land nightclub jobs; Crawford is a dancer in town, but Raymond hooks up with Esther Ralston and goes on tour with her, leaving Crawford alone in the big city. She winds up marrying chronically drunk millionaire Edward Arnold in order to save his life, then some time later, discovers that Raymond has been dumped by Ralston and is languishing sick and alone. More sacrifice and melodrama is ahead for all, including Tone who reenters the picture. That's a lot of plot for a 90 minute movie but it all comes off pretty well. Crawford is very good, as is Arnold, though his drunk routine gets old fast. Leo G. Carroll has a nice bit as Arnold's butler, who is antagonistic toward Crawford because he thinks she's just a golddigger, and Jean Dixon is a kindly landlady. Basically, everyone winds up a good egg at heart. I'm not a big fan of the fair-haired, passive Raymond, but he's OK here, and he gets a very nice scene (the aforementioned bedroom scene) where he plays the ukelele and serenades Crawford by singing "All I Do Is Dream of You." Another song, "After You've Gone," is sung by a nighclub band to the drunken Arnold. Ralston is remarkably modern looking. Tone is his usual bland self, mostly standing around looking shocked and angry. Overall, very entertaining; an underrated gem.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Rod Steiger is the title character, the manager of a pawnshop in Harlem; he survived the Holocaust but he saw his family degraded and killed. He has become numb to both the joys and the suffering of the people around him (his family, his acquaintances, and his customers). People's sob stories, told as they dicker with him for more money, don't affect him, and neither do attempts by others to initiate friendly relationships. A neighborhood woman (Geraldine Fitzgerald) tries for something like a romance, but is rebuffed. Jaime Sanchez is a worker at the pawnshop who tries to approach him as a mentor, but Steiger is reluctant to be even that. Brock Peters is a gangster who owns the building and uses the shop as a money-laundering front. Peters' pimping brings back horrific memories to Stieger of seeing his wife raped by Nazis. In the end, Sanchez, who has been looking for a way out of the thuggish life he seems destined for, helps his pals rob the pawnshop, an event that leads to the inevitable tragic ending. Flashbacks to Steiger's past are done mostly in lightning-fast glimpses. The black and white cinematography enhances the bleak atmosphere, though the loud Quincy Jones score doesn't really fit. There is an interesting visual motif of fences and gates to reinforce Steiger's separation from humanity. Steiger is very good, but so is Jaime Sanchez, an appealing actor whose career didn't take off like it should have. A 60's classic of alienation that fits right in with movies like DARLING, THE COLLECTOR, and BLOW-UP.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A YANK IN THE R.A.F. (1941)

One of several pre-war propaganda films set in England designed to promote our eventual entrance in the war. Ultimately, however, this one is more focused on characterization and romance. Tyrone Power is an American pilot who is paid to fly planes being "loaned" to Canada and flown to England (this was a way of technically remaining neutal before Pearl Harbor). Power has no particular stake in the war effort until he meets up with old flame Betty Grable over in London; to impress her, he joins the Royal Air Force. He winds up with a rival for Grable's affections (John Sutton). Power is cocky and impatient; when his first flying assignment culminates in dropping leaflets over Berlin instead of bombs, he decides to drop the leaflets by the box and manages to put out a few searchlights on the ground. Soon, the missions get more dangerous and a friend (Reginald Gardiner) dies heroically. This causes Power to gain more respect for his job and he winds up in a life-threatening position at Dunkirk. I like the fact that the movie has a little more to it than the typical propaganda piece of the time, and it's interesting that Power's character is mostly rather unlikeable, even in the end. He meets Grable when posing as a volunteer during an air raid drill and at the very end, he is still using subterfuge to get ahead romantically. Apparently, some of the airplane footage was shot under dangerous circumstances, though the nighttime scenes are patently artificial (but still effective). Not an important film, but entertaining.

Friday, September 19, 2003


A WWII propaganda film without much propaganda. In fact, it's barely a war movie at all--it's really a story of female bonding in the military that doesn't bother to make much of use its wartime background, perhaps because it came out fairly late in the war (spring of '45). Lana Turner is a rich playgirl who is in danger of losing her inheritance because of her decadent ways, so she joins the Womens Army Corps to prove her mettle, then plans on skipping out on her military obligation as soon as she gets the money. Laraine Day is the gung-ho daughter of a general (Henry O'Neill). Susan Peters is the quiet, seemingly more vulnerable one whose husband is at the front. The three bond, then fight, then bond, etc. Turner and Day spend most of the movie at each other's throats and Peters keeps trying to be loyal to both of them. The playgirl winds up finding that being a WAC is inspiring and gets serious about officer training, but Day isn't convinced that she's got the right stuff, leading to complications that affect all three of them. Agnes Moorehead has a small but important role as an officer who has to step in at a crucial point. There's an interesting supporting cast including June Lockhart, Lee Patrick, and Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell from "Gilligan's Island"). Naturally, Turner's high society pals are portrayed as unpatriotic, drunken fops. An amusing line, from Day to Turner: "I'll slap you right across that smirk that you call a smile!" Worth seeing mostly for Turner and Day.

Monday, September 15, 2003


This weak follow-up (but not sequel) to TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE has Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson as a vaudeville team who, while driving through Texas, are stranded at a dude ranch. Dorothy Malone, the owner, is a bit wary of putting the two up while the police look for their stolen car but Penny Edwards, an old friend and ex-partner of the team, vouches for them. Predictable romantic complications occur along with the particularly bizarre plot twist that Carson has a phobia of all animals. Fred Clark, a veterinarian who is hired by Morgan to get the roots of Carson's problems, decides it all stems from romantic insecurity. Forrest Tucker, looking quite young and fair, is a local cop who who is set to marry Malone. The car thieves show up and make even more trouble for the leading men before everything gets worked out for the best. The silly storyline is just an excuse for the frequent and fairly bland songs (except for one clever number, "I Wanna Be a Cowboy in the Movies") and comedy routines. Bugs Bunny has a cameo. Whatever appeal this movie has is solely due to the charms of Morgan and Carson, but I think even their fans will be glad to see this one end.

Saturday, September 13, 2003


In the post-war years, Warner Brothers tried to make Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson a comedy/musical team. The two are amiable enough and Morgan always makes a convincing romantic lead, but they mostly come off as a B-grade version of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Though they had appeared together in a few movies earlier in the 40's, this was the first of their lead pairings and it's their best (though THE TIME, THE PLACE, AND THE GIRL, reviewed Feb. 2002, is quite fun as well). Morgan plays a European prince (with absolutely no trace of an accent) who arrives in New York City on the eve of an important vote in his country on whether to keep a monarchy or go democratic. He wants to see life as a commoner and gets his guardian (S. Z. Sakall) to give him 24 hours of liberty (away from bodyguards and press) to experience America on his own. After he sneaks off his train, he meets up with a friendly cabbie (Carson); they get drunk and spend the night at Carson's house where he lives with his sister (Rosemary DeCamp) and her little daughter. The next morning Carson finds out Morgan's real identity (after having crashed in the same bed, Carson blurts out, "Me--sleeping with a prince!") and Carson agrees to keep Morgan's secret. Soon, Morgan winds up sweet on Carson's girl (Joan Leslie) and complications ensue. By a little past the halfway point, the plot machinations become a bit tedious but the actors keep it watchable. Janis Paige is another love interest, and John Ridgely and Franklin Pangborn have small roles. There are references to THE BIG SLEEP and GASLIGHT, and Lauren Bacall (whom Morgan has wanted to meet all along) and Humphrey Bogart have cameos in the last scene. The climax of the story involves a out-of-the-blue pro-democracy speech that Carson makes over the radio, in a sudden burst of post-war patriotism. Overall, the chemistry between Morgan and Carson makes the movie enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003


A potentially interesting plotline is done in by a miscast star. Ginger Rogers plays a young working-class woman from the Bronx who saves up money to treat herself to a 2-week vacation at a mountain camp in the Catskills. She hopes to meet some smart and charming people, and she does fall in with some lively female friends, including Eve Arden (with a wildly broad accent) Lucille Ball, and Peggy Conklin, but she takes an instant dislike to the smartest and most charming male in the vicinity, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a law school student working at the camp for the summer. Of course, since Rogers and Fairbanks are top-billed, we know they'll eventually get together, even though they never really seem like a good match. Red Skelton is Itchy, the slapstick social director, in his first movie role. Jack Carson has a couple of scenes as Rogers' neighborhood beau; Lee Bowman is Buzzy who becomes a romantic complication; Grady Sutton and Allan Lane are also in the cast, and apparently Ann Miller had a few scenes which were cut before release. For a short movie, it wears out its welcome rather quickly, after a breezy 20 minutes or so. Noteable for a character's use of the phrase "truckin'." The real problem with the movie may be that, in the original play, Rogers' character was Jewish (and I imagine, so was Fairbanks), but any ethnic humor or situations are missing from this version and it becomes simply an uninspired, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy.