Wednesday, January 29, 2003


According to Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, this was one of the most popular "race" movies of the 30's and 40's, independently produced films made by black filmmakers for black audiences. This one has echoes of earlier and later mainstream Hollywood movies such as THE GREEN PASTURES and CABIN IN THE SKY. Cathryn Caviness plays Martha, a young wife who is baptised at the river one Sunday morning in the presence of the entire church flock except her husband Razz (Spencer Williams, also the writer and director) who is off hunting, or, more precisely, poaching hogs that belong to someone else. He's not portrayed as wicked so much as misguided. As Martha rests up from her baptism, Razz's rifle accidently goes off, shooting her in the side, with the bullet going clean through her and hitting a portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall. (This seemed like a physical impossibility given the angles involved, but I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways.) The flock arrives to sing and pray at her bedside, seemingly to no avail; her soul-self is taken by an angel on a journey through a wicked city on the way to a crossroads where she will have to take one of two paths: "To Hell" or "To Zion." She is tested in the city and nearly fails, but is redeemed at the crossroads where the road sign turns into a life-size crucifix from which Jesus's blood drips on her face and saves her. She wakes up in bed, a little like Dorothy back from Oz, surrounded by the flock and her loving and contrite husband.

It's a very low budget film, although its starkly minimal sets and costumes actually give it an almost surreal (and occasionally quite creepy) atmosphere. I doubt the creepiness was intended, especially in the strange scenes of Martha just after her baptism--I would think joy would be the order of the day, but she seems drained of all energy like a sleepwalker. A rather non-threatening trick-or-treat style devil shows up in the big city to tempt her into mildly sinful behavior. There is lots of music throughout, mostly hymns including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and an especially dirge-like rendition of "Amazing Grace," but also some lowdown Robert Johnson-like blues in the wicked city. The movie is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but I found it watchable due to the short one-hour running time and the strange atmosphere. There's hardly a moment in the film that feels real, but that's almost a plus. TCM runs this sometimes in February for Black History Month, and it's worth catching.

Sunday, January 26, 2003


This early talkie is a social-issue melodrama that comes off a bit creaky nowadays but nevertheless has an interesting atmosphere and some good performances. The film (based on a play) follows the lives of a group of tenement dwellers over a 24-hour period; mostly we see them interact in front of the building, some on the front stairs and some sitting in their first-floor windows, trying to escape the summer heat. We never see the interior of the building and I can only recall one brief scene that takes place elsewhere. The movie is character driven: Estelle Taylor is the catalyst for much of the action as a woman who is cheating on her bullying husband, David Landau, whose explosion leads to the film's climax; Sylvia Sidney is her daughter who yearns for a better life; William Collier Jr. is the passive lad who loves Sidney but won't act on his feelings; Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the gossip hound who would seem to deserve a comeuppance but never gets one. The opening, with the palpable heat and the people gathered on the stoops, reminds me of DO THE RIGHT THING, and there's even a simmering subplot about racial prejudice here (Collier's character is Jewish). Very stagy, as befits its origins, but some interesting camerawork now and then helps. Sidney went on to do another film based on a play about New York tenement life, DEAD END.

Saturday, January 25, 2003


A real pre-Code oddity: a romantic comedy-western-musical! With Joan Crawford!! Crawford plays a rich girl accompanying her rowdy group of friends on a trip out west on her father's private train. Her sister (Dorothy Sebastian) has brought along her new beau (Ricardo Cortez) and she thinks he's the real thing, but he soon starts hitting on Crawford. Tired of the whole scene, she jumps off the train in the middle of nowhere (actually, Montana) and meets up with a lonesome cowboy (Johnny Mack Brown). They flirt a bit and she spends the night with him under the stars. It turns out that she's not so very far from civilization: Brown is a cowboy on her father's ranch. After a quick courtship, they marry (with her father's approval, as he hopes Brown's the one to settle her down), but when the gang of friends stop by on the way back east, the culture clash (and Cortez's continuing caddish ways) almost proves too much for both of them. The clever ending involves a train robbery that isn't quite what it seems. It's not really a full-fledged musical, but a few songs get sung by Brown, Crawford, and the cowboys. Crawford is fine. Brown, after a few promising minutes early on, proves to be a bland leading man. More fun are Cliff Edwards as a banjo-playing buddy of Brown's and Benny Rubin as a Jewish doctor who winds up working on the ranch. The two engage in some fairly amusing vaudeville schtick. One rather racy line has Brown saying to Crawford, on their first night together, "I wish you could crawl into my bed some night!" I wish Cortez had played the cowboy; at least he would have had a personality.

Friday, January 24, 2003


This all-star wartime revue from Paramount is much more enjoyable than MGM's similar (but overlong and bloated) THOUSANDS CHEER. The plotline: Eddie Bracken is a sailor whose dad (Victor Moore) has told him that he runs Paramount when in reality he's just a security guard there. Now Bracken and his Navy buddies are in town and expecting a tour and a show, and Betty Hutton (as Bracken's pen-pal girlfriend, a switchboard operator at the studio) helps Moore pull off his trick (shades of LADY FOR A DAY). Bracken and Hutton are both good, better than they would be a couple of years later for Preston Sturges in the hyperactive farce MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK. Walter Abel is the "real" studio boss B. G. DeSoto (a caricature, I assume, of truly real Paramount producer B. G. DeSylva), and the underrated Anne Revere is his loyal secretary. Of course, the narrative is just a backdrop for a bunch of musical numbers and comic skits, most of which are bundled together in the last half-hour, as an all-star show for the Navy. Folks like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Franchot Tone, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Susan Hayward, Fred MacMurray, and Cecil B. DeMille participate. Some of the songs are top-notch; one, "That Old Black Magic," danced wonderfully by Vera Zorina, won an Oscar. Another, "A Sweater, a Sarong, and a Peek-a-Boo Bang," sung by Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour, and Lake, is a very funny commentary on celebrity. The best bit, however, is a song, presented as though it was a number in a new Preston Sturges movie (with Sturges doing a cameo) called "Hit The Road to Dreamland," sung by Dick Powell and Mary Martin, joined toward the end by a black male vocal quartet who take the song in a whole new direction. I don't think I'd ever seen Martin in a movie, or in anything except as Peter Pan on TV, so that alone made the film worth watching. Hope and Crosby are top-billed but don't really have much to do. A famous sketch by George S. Kaufman, "If Men Played Cards Like Women Do," is presented here with Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, and Franchot Tone, and is quite funny, mostly since the men play it completely straight, never shifting into mincing camp (until the very end). This is also the only movie (I'm guessing) where you can see Arthur Treacher in drag! Very fun.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003


This trashy but fun B-horror film scared the beejezus out of me when I was 10 or 11 and saw it on our local Chiller Theater. Its best part is the opening where we see a woman casually going about washing her hair in the sink, except instead of shampoo, she is applying some flammable gel, and instead of a sink, she sticks her face over a stove burner (the camera watches her from beneath the burner) and her hair catches fire--the effect is good for a few seconds, but we see it for too long and realize that the fire is superimposed on her head. It turns out that she is just the latest in a series of beautiful young women who have mutilated themselves and can't explain why. The only other disfiguring act we see is a woman who washes her face in sulferic acid, but we see the results of several others, including one woman who stuck her face in the whirling blades of an electric fan and another who swallowed lye. It takes quite a while for the slow cop and doctor to figure out what we figure out pretty quickly: they are all victims of a stage hypnotist (Jacques Bergerac) and his statuesque assistant (Allison Hayes), who are picking women from the audience and giving them post-hypnotic suggestions that lead them to their acts of self-mutilation. Bergerac (who was married for a few years to Ginger Rogers) is quite handsome and fairly good in the role, considering he has to ham it up quite a bit during his stage act. Hayes, the star of the original ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, is also good, if rather one-dimensional; mostly, all she has to do is stand around looking sexy and vaguely sinister (as it happens, she winds up being the mastermind behind the mutilations). For the most part, the movie is paced well until it stops dead in its tracks near the climax for an audience-participation hypnosis trick that seems inspired by the pranks of William Castle (THE TINGLER, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL). The climax itself then feels rushed. The movie's main problem, however, is that it can't top that great opening!

Sunday, January 19, 2003


A vaguely feminist B-melodrama that seems to have served as an influence for later films like BLUE VELVET that point out the hypocrisy of some elements of mainstream American society. It's cheaply made and poorly edited, but it's still great slam-bang entertainment from Samuel Fuller, even better than his earlier SHOCK CORRIDOR. In one of the best movie openings ever, Constance Towers plays a hooker who is beating the hell out of her pimp with her purse. Even more startlingly, her wig comes off to reveal that she's totally bald (a relatively minor plot point that crops up again later). She finishes kicking ass, takes the money owed her, and leaves. Two years later, she gets off the bus in the small Midwestern town of Grantville, ostensibly selling champagne (Angel Foam) but actually selling herself. Her first customer is Anthony Eisley, the hypocritical town sheriff. After sex, he warns her to take her trade to a neighboring town--he'll buy from her, but he doesn't want her to taint his own town. But Towers, realizing she's not getting any younger or healthier, decides to go into a legitimate job, as a nurse's aide at a local hospital for handicapped kids. The kids and nurses love her, and the local rich guy (Michael Dante), whose philanthropy is responsible for the hospital, falls for Towers. Just when she thinks that her life is on track, it turns out that almost everyone in town except the handicapped kids is horribly two-faced and/or hiding some kind of secret, and Towers winds up accused of murder.

Towers' character is almost too good to be true. Her scenes with the kids are pretty close to being over-the-top sappy. Griff, the cop, is really the most interesting character; he winds up as in some ways both the hero and the villain of the movie. In the end, he comes through for Towers, but it's touch and go for most of the film, and I don't thing we're intended to see him as fully redeemed. Despite the low budget and the erratic range of acting, many individual scenes stand out. In addition to beating up her pimp (a scene that does eventually tie in to the main action of the movie), Towers also smacks the hell out of the local madam (Virginia Grey, a starlet from the 30's who does a nice job here) and winds up stuffing her mouth full of cash. A scene where Dante is seducing Towers by showing her film of his trip to Venice is interesting--the couch on which they are necking turns into a gondola and the whole thing feels like a tacky romance cover fantasy, which I think is the intention. In addition to prostitution, abortion and pedophilia crop up as plot points. Many critics of the film hate the sappy song about the Bluebird of Happiness that Towers sings with the kids (and which itself becomes an important plot point), but I liked it--it has that sad, minor-key sound of 60's songs like "Those Were the Days," or "I Will Wait for You" from THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Technically, the movie is often a mess, with several scenes that consist of a fade-in, two lines of dialogue, and a fade-out. Still, this is raw and exciting filmmaking. It's not violent, but I can imagine Fuller being considered the Tarentino of his day for his idiosyncratic and energetic style.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

DESIRE (1936)

Ernst Lubitsch produced this comedy which sparkles intermittently but feels a little too long. Some of it reminds me of Lubitsch's later BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE, due in part to the European settings and to the presence of Gary Cooper who is relaxed and charming (and occasionally goofy) in both films. In the casually-paced opening sequence, Marlene Dietrich pulls off the daring theft of an expensive pearl necklace by pulling an elaborate trick on a jeweler (Ernest Cossart) and a psychiatrist (Alan Mowbray). She runs into a snag at customs and picks Cooper as her next victim, hiding the necklace in his jacket pocket. Eventually Dietrich and her partner in crime (John Halliday) try to recover the pearls as the police begin to close in on their ring, which includes Zeffie Tilbury as the deceptively sweet "Aunt Olga." Of course, Dietrich and Cooper fall in love and she decides to go straight for him, much to Halliday's chagrin. There are lots of small pleasures here. In the opening, as part of her front for getting the necklace, she tells Mowbray that the jeweler (supposedly her husband) imagines himself a scared schoolgirl and wears nightgowns to bed. Cooper sings a lot to himself, especially versions of a catchy car jingle--he's an engineer from Detroit on vacation. When Dietrich confesses her crime, his reaction is to give her an (offscreen) spanking. Dietrich is lovely, and Halliday and Cooper are both charming, and the whole supporting cast is fine, including William Frawley in a bit at the beginning as Cooper's boss. The film drags a bit in the middle, and is more ordinary than Dietrich's collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, but is worth catching.

Friday, January 17, 2003


A rather studio-bound film about Allied pilots trapped behind enemy lines, being helped out by members of the French Resistance. Paul Henreid, a Frenchman, has the most to lose if he is captured. Alan Ladd, the youngest of the bunch, is seriously injured. Ladd and the others manage to hide in the sewers of Paris while Henreid roams the streets in disguise, rounding up Resistance help. The casting of some of the supporting parts is interesting: Thomas Mitchell is especially good as a sympathetic priest who proves to be a great help. Laird Cregar is even better as an effete Nazi official who winds up engaging Henreid in a drawn-out cat-and-mouse game. May Robson, in her last movie role, is fine as an aged schoolteacher who turns out to be a very effective Resistance fighter. Michele Morgan, in one of her few American films, is OK but not much better as the title character, a waifish waitress who prays to Joan of Arc for guidance and is thust somewhat unwillingly into the spy game by Henreid. She falls for him when he hides in her apartment and winds up being the key to the escape of the Allies. A scene with Robson's schoolchildren singing the French national anthem during some Nazi mayhem is a bit over the top--the similar scene in CASABLANCA comes off much better because is has more style, more suspense, and is better written. Overall, not bad but with more than its share of slow spots, and Henreid and Morgan make only middling heroes.

Monday, January 13, 2003


Jean Renoir's B-film noir that mostly manages to transcend its low budget to become an interesting exercise in sparse, minimalist atmosphere. Robert Ryan is a shell-shocked sailor who is now a Coast Guard officer patrolling a stretch of beach filled with dead hulls of ships. He meets up with Joan Bennett during one of her walks along the beach and they begin a moody and mostly unsatisfying dalliance behind her husband's back. Charles Bickford is the husband, an embittered blind artist who we come to believe may be faking his handicap. Irene Ryan has a small part as a shopkeeper. Although none of the main trio of actors are favorites of mine, they all do fine jobs here as tortured individuals. Bickford goes a bit over the top, but that bit of excess helps to balance out the stagy and undernourished look of the film. Occasionally the whole thing feels unfinished, but it's still worth catching for the unique atmosphere.

Saturday, January 11, 2003


Set during the French Revolution, this is a very fun adventure film that I'd be inclined to call it a swashbuckler, but there's actually very little actual fighting; most of the battles involve wits rather than swords. I like Leslie Howard, but whenever I see him, I always think of Ashley in GONE WITH THE WIND. Now, however, this will be the part with which I'll associate him. He plays a foppish British aristocrat, Sir Percy, who is actually the Scarlet Pimpernel, a mysterious "superhero" who leads a group of British noblemen who help various members of the French nobility escape the guillotine. I wonder if this character (taken from a novel) was an inspiration for Superman. As the Pimpernel, he is brave and daring and a master of disguise; as Sir Percy, he is a wonderfully effete Oscar Wildeish dandy, always exclaiming "Damn me!" or "Sink me!" and seeming far more concerned with his clothes than with politics. His French wife (Merle Oberon) is suspected of having betrayed a royal family so Percy has not told her about his secret identity; the scene where she finds out contains a very effective zoom shot. If the movie has a fault, it's that any real danger is confined to the opening (where we see the Pimpernel and his men in a daring rescue) and closing (Howard is caught in a trap by the villainous Raymond Massey). The middle section is rather leisurely, but Howard is always fun to watch. Nigel Bruce is the Prince of Wales, and Melville Cooper is the painter Romney. Oberon, who I don't usually care for, is fine here. Great fun and highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003


A unique film, indeed. A French film in which all the dialogue is sung, it's not quite a traditional movie musical, although it certainly is a forerunner to the Lloyd Webber films like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA. On the surface, it's a lushly romantic movie, but by the end, it has bared its more realistic, anti-romantic heart. The bright candy-colored sets and costumes are an unusual touch, giving the film some of the sheen of the classical Hollywood musicals without making it look artificial. Catherine Deneuve plays the young daughter of a working-class woman who runs an umbrella shop which is in financial trouble. The lovely Deneuve falls in love with Nino Castelnuovo, a handsome garage mechanic. Her mother (Anne Vernon) disapproves of the match because the boy isn't rich. He is called up to fight in the war in Algeria--the film is set in the late 50's, and this sets up an interesting parallel for American viewers to our troubles in Vietnam which were escalating at the time the movie was released here. They pledge their love to each other and decide to marry when he returns; she winds up pregnant with his child and when she doesn't hear from him for months, she gives up on him and lets her mother arrange a marriage that leaves her financially well off. Years later, Deneuve and Castelnuovo meet up again on Christmas Eve in an ending that is not sentimental yet is nearly as heartbreaking as the end of WEST SIDE STORY. The jazzy pop score is relentlessly upeat, except for the famous melody, "I Will Wait For You." Perhaps the first deconstructionist musical and certainly an influence on the recent MOULIN ROUGE. Quite good.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

D.O.A. (1950)

I had avoided this one because it sounded so gimmicky, but I kept seeing it referred to as a great, almost archtypal film noir, so I broke down and watched it and was pleasantly surprised. Edmund O'Brien is an insurance man from a small town in California who travels to San Francisco for a long weekend, partly to get away from the smothering attentions of his secretary/girlfriend (Pamela Britton). She warns him about the wild life in the big city, and indeed he gets roped into some partying with wild conventioneers who are staying in his hotel. He doesn't wind up doing anything too decadent, but during a visit to a jazz club, his drink is spiked and he winds up with a terminal case of "luminous poisoning." There is no cure, but he still has a week to live, during which he sets out to find his killer. The opening scene, which follows him into a police station where he reports his own murder, is truly classic. What's missing here is any depth of meaning or theme, except, I guess, an observation on the whims of fate. O'Brien, though tempted, remained faithful to his clinging girlfriend, so he's not even paying for any cosmic misstep. I suppose it's a good example of the noir philosophy of man at the mercy of an irrational universe. Neville Brand is memorably creepy in two good scenes as a sadistic tough guy: in one scene, he brutally kicks O'Brien in the gut over and over, and in the other, someone winds up with a bottle smashed in his face. The "mystery" is in some ways just a Hitchcock "McGuffin," getting incoherent along the way. It got to the point where I didn't really care who had poisoned him or why, although the solution does wind up tying into the theme of chance and fate. The most coherent message here seems to be, stay in your own backyard, or, as learned less dangerously by Dorothy, there's no place like home. Not a masterpiece, but worth seeing, especially for noir fans.

Sunday, January 05, 2003


This is a propaganda film, not for our efforts in WWII, but for the government's attempts to help the stuggling American economy after the Depression. The title, we are told at the beginning and end of the film, comes from a quote by FDR; in England, the movie's title was THE NEW DEAL. Set in England, the plot follows the problems of two men who work for the Service department store chain: one is Lionel Barrymore, an unambitious, low-level clerk who has worked in essentially the same position for 40 years; the other is Lewis Stone, the president of the store chain and head of the Service family. Times are bad and Stone is forced to cut some dead weight in order to stay open. Though he has some loyalty and affection for Barrymore, his advisors talk him into sacking the old man. However, despite the firings, Stone's troubles continue and he faces bankruptcy unless he agrees to sell his chain. His family is not very helpful: his lazy children think only of themselves and his unfaithful wife (Benita Hume) is ready to leave him. By contrast, Barrymore's family rallies around him and he finds a new business opening a small bakery with his wife (Doris Lloyd) at its helm. Eventually, at Stone's darkest moment, he runs into Barrymore and is inspired to follow Barrymore's lead in solving his problems and keeping his store. Colin Clive does a nice job in the understated role of Stone's personal assistant, who is more help to Stone than his own children, and who rather passively courts Stone's daughter (Elizabeth Allan). Phillips Holmes is Stone's son, who does come around to make his father proud. Despite fairly good performances from all, the proceedings are rather drab, cut and dried, and too propagandistic to be fully successful as entertainment.

Friday, January 03, 2003


These are two B-mysteries featuring Edward Arnold as blind detective Duncan Maclain. Both are structured similarly: they begin with scenes showing Arnold (thick-bodied and middle-aged) getting the best of some strapping policemen in a self-defense/wrestling match, and they end with Arnold breaking out, rather improbably, from a tight spot of imprisonment and using his agile physical skills to kick the bad guy's ass. Everyone, good and bad alike, underestimates Arnold's powers of deduction, based largely on his other four senses and on his seeing eye dog, Friday. EYES is the better film, a little more tightly plotted and with a stronger cast. Ann Harding is concerned that her stepdaughter (a very young Donna Reed) is keeping company with a slimy third-rate community theater actor (John Emery). The trick is that Harding has a history with Emery and Reed thinks that her stepmom is jealous. One night, Emery is found murdered and Harding and Reed both think the other is involved. Family friend Arnold investigates. The bulk of the film takes place over one long night in the family house and the case winds up involving the usual 40's elements of foreign spies and secret weapons. Allen Jenkins is Arnold's sidekick, who spends most of the last half tied up in a basement, and who is spectacularly rescued by Friday, the dog. In THE HIDDEN EYE, Frances Rafferty calls on Arnold for help when her father is killed, apparently by someone looking to settle some past scores. Her fiance is the chief suspect, but the villain is someone much closer to the victim. William Phillips (replacing Allen Jenkins) and Ray Collins are also featured. This might have made a decent series of films if it had started a few years earlier, when the Falcon and Saint movies did. By 1945, this kind of movie was seeming a little out-of-date and no more Duncan Maclain films were made. I recommend the first one, but the second is negligible.

Thursday, January 02, 2003


Spoilers included!
I must admit I've never been able to get through Tolstoy's classic novel, and until the other day, I'd never seen more than a few minutes of any film version. David Selznick gives the material a very nice production with grand sets, sumptuous costumes, and some luminous cinematography. Still, I imagine Tolstoy's story could have been better served, as I felt very little for any of the characters, due to bland writing and mostly average acting. Greta Garbo is Anna, the wife of strutting ass Basil Rathbone. On a trip to see relatives, Anna meets the dashing military man Count Vronsky (Fredric March). For a while, she fights her attraction to him but eventually gives in and has an affair. Rathbone won't give Garbo a divorce, so she leaves him to live with March. Rathbone has banned Garbo from having any contact with their son (Freddie Bartholomew; and since it's still that time of year, why did this kid never play Tiny Tim?), telling the boy that his mother is dead. She makes one last visit and soon after, things with March go downhill when he chooses voluntary military action over lolling about in the country with Garbo. She catches him flirting with another woman as he leaves for the front and, thinking that both of her "family" options are no longer viable, throws herself in front of a train, or more precisely, between moving train cars, in a climax that is nicely foreshadowed by an early scene of a man who is accidently killed in the same way.

Physically, Garbo is lovely and ethereal, but because Garbo always played passion very much on the surface, I never feel like I know what's going on inside her. March is mostly deadly dull in the part; I never saw what Anna saw in him to inspire her reckless behavior. Rathbone gives the best performance in the film as a man we love to hate. The only actor who could have done the part better is Erich von Stroheim--in fact, he did play a similar role in the 1931 FRIENDS AND LOVERS. Shining in the supporting cast are Reginald Owen, Maureen O'Sullivan and May Robson. There are some striking scenes: an long tracking shot of a military banquet table, a lovely ball, a glowing garden scene, and some nice use of snow. The plot feels a lot like an Edith Wharton "lesson" about society and family and the price we pay when we choose to go our own way. I'd like to track down the Vivien Leigh version; what I really should do, I guess, is buckle down and read the book!