Saturday, March 29, 2003


An fair-to-middling romantic comedy that isn't quite as frothy as it needs to be, largely due to the casting. Bette Davis (in the years just before ALL ABOUT EVE when her career was foundering) is the editor of Home Life magazine. Her publisher (Jerome Cowan) busts her old flame (Robert Montgomery) down from war correspondent to human interest reporter and forces Davis to hire him. The prickly pair head off with a small crew from New York City to suburban Indiana to supervise a wedding that will be written up for a special June issue--though it's still winter outside. Once they all arrive and take over the house and the wedding preparations, the plot becomes a variation on THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, with Davis and company the sophisticated interlopers surrounded by midwest yokels. Fay Bainter and Mary Wickes are magazine staffers; Tom Tully is the father of the bride, always nipping off for a drink; Barbara Bates (Phoebe in the last scene of ALL ABOUT EVE) is the bride, but it's her younger sister (Betty Lynn) who gets more attention; she has fallen head over heels for the groom. Davis and Montgomery are a bit long in the tooth for their parts and come off like touring company replacements for Russell and Grant in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. The repartee between them doesn't sparkle as much as it should. Montgomery especially comes off as old and tired. The rest of the cast is fine. The disappointing and predictable ending, with Davis having to choose between her man and her career, is another strike against the movie. According to most sources, Debbie Reynolds has an uncredited bit, but I missed it.

Thursday, March 27, 2003


MGM treads on Warner Brothers' turf with this hard-boiled gangster picture filled with bluster, violence, sex, and star power. Apparently, the plotline is a thinly veiled recounting of the story of Al Capone. Wallace Beery plays beefy lug Louis Scorpio, nicknamed "Slaughterhouse," for the job he held before he started working with bootlegger Ralph Bellamy (in his first movie role). Beery works his way up the line the become second only to crooked lawyer & crime lord Lewis Stone. Johnny Mack Brown is a reporter who follows the gang and writes about their exploits. He falls for Jean Harlow, a kind-hearted waitress who works for the mob. Clark Gable shows up as a rival reporter. One early scene uses overlapping dialogue as Brown and Gable both call in stories and flirt with Harlow at the same time. Beery takes over the town (Centro, rather than Chicago) while a group of six businessmen, who wear masks and go by the name "The Secret Six," arrange to have Gable work undercover to leak info on the gang to the district attorney. Brown gets caught up in the action as well. Even though Brown gets star billing, Gable effortlessly steals every scene he's in. Eight years before GONE WITH THE WIND, you can hear Rhett Butler in his voice now and then. It's a bit of a change of pace to see Bellamy (usually the nice-guy romantic loser) and Stone (Judge Hardy and kindly grandfather types) play bad guys. A fast pace and good acting (aside from the rather wooden Brown) make this worth catching.

Monday, March 24, 2003


Among the studios that were regularly releasing musicals in the 30's and 40's, Fox comes in pretty much dead last behind MGM, Warners, and RKO. This movie is a good example of why. It's not terrible, and it has some talented people and some great songs, but it's just so bland and mediocre. This might well be the first of the fictional show biz bio musicals that became so popular in the 40's. Later ones, like MGM's TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (which I reveiwed 11/02) and WORDS AND MUSIC, were based very loosely on real people; this one, though filled with the music of Irving Berlin, is completely fictional and painfully predictable, and the production numbers are not spectacular enough to overcome the film's dramatic problems. Tyrone Power plays Roger Grant, a "serious" musician who decides he'd rather take a shot at making a living playing popular music, much to the dismay of his guardian (Helen Westley) and mentor (Jean Hersholt). As he and his band make the audition rounds, they cross paths with ill-tempered singer Alice Faye, who happens to have a new song sent to her by Mr. Berlin. The song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," gets them a job and provides the band with a name. The rest of the film charts their rise and fall, together and apart. Piano player Don Ameche falls for Faye, but after an initial spell of rubbing each other the wrong way, she falls for Power. Soon the feeling becomes mutual--it happens while she sings a song written to and for her by Ameche--but she is discovered by a Broadway producer and she leaves without the band.

Over time, Ameche and Faye work together and get married, though the coupling is clearly a passionless one on her part. Meanwhile, Power enlists Ethel Merman to sing with his band; they're half-heartedly attracted to each other, but we know that somehow, Faye and Power will wind up in each other's arms by the last song. The plodding story is punctuated with solid renditions of Berlin songs like "Blue Skies," "Easter Parade," "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and "My Walking Stick," but few of the numbers have the razzle-dazzle of the Busby Berkeley or Fred Astaire films of the time. I hate to say this, but it might have stood the test of time better if it had been filmed in color. Power and Faye are fine, Merman is in great voice, and the supporting cast features Jack Haley, John Carradine, and Douglas Fowley. The climax occurs at a swing concert the band gives at Carneige Hall (probably patterned after similar real-life events by Benny Goodman or Paul Whiteman), but it doesn't help that the music is neither ragtime nor swing!

Thursday, March 20, 2003


Vincente Minnelli directed this fairly big-budget MGM film noir which one Internet critic dubbed "glossy noir." It's not just the high-class treatment that does it in, but the length--at a full two hours, it can't sustain the tense mood that a movie which borrows from GASLIGHT, SUSPICION, LAURA, and REBECCA needs to have. The long opening section sets a misleadingly light tone that throws off the balance of the whole thing. Katharine Hepburn is the old-maidish daughter of a famous scientist (Edmund Gwenn). She's a bit long in the tooth to be playing a coy lass who still lives with her father and is courted by drab suitors (and this same problem crops up a few years later with Hepburn in THE RAINMAKER). A rich industrialist (Robert Taylor) visits Gwenn and falls for Hepburn. After they marry, little signs crop up that he is not exactly what he seems to be. The messy plotline suggests, among other things, that Taylor may have done some embezelling and killed his ne'er do well brother. Hepburn becomes fascinated with the dead brother (as Dana Andrews does with the dead LAURA) and begins to fear her husband. Marjorie Main has a thankless role as a maid in the first half of the movie. Robert Mitchum pops up later as a mysterious stranger (is he friend or is he foe?). The film climaxes in a fairly exciting horse chase (unlike the average noir, it's set not in the city but out in the wide-open country), but by then, it has worn out its welcome. This is a case where a smaller budget and a scrappy B-film director might have improved the movie.

Sunday, March 16, 2003


A very early film from the British Hammer Films; despite their later reputation, this one isn't really a horror film as much as a fairly traditional psychological mystery. It's a speculation about a possible solution to the real-life mystery of the ship Marie Celeste (or Mary Celeste, as it was called in the original American title MYSTERY OF THE MARY CELESTE) which was found floating intact but abandoned at sea. Captain Briggs (Arthur Margetson) sets sail with his new wife (Shirley Grey) and a crew rounded up mostly at the last minute. There is trouble even before they leave when they try to shanghai a man to complete the crew. Another captain (Clifford McLaglen) is jealous because Margetson married his former girlfriend; for revenge, he gets a man put on the crew who is supposed to make sure that harm comes to the captain during the voyage. Bela Lugosi is a one-armed old salt who has aged beyond his years due to his brutal shanghaiing by the man who is now the Marie Celeste's first mate (Edmond Willard). Lugosi joins the crew under an alias and appears to be a somewhat eccentric religious man who weeps hysterically when he kills a someone who was about to attack the captain's wife, but actually he is there to get his own revenge. Lugosi is quite good, getting to show a little more acting range than he usually could in his straightforward horror roles. Crew members start winding up dead and a nice TEN LITTLE INDIANS atmosphere is built up, although coherent character and plot development are sacrificed, particularly in the case of the captain and his wife--it seems that the wife will be of some importance in the plot, but aside from being a reason for McLaglen's revenge, she isn't. To be fair, it appears that some footage, including a framing device of a maritime trial, is missing and presumed unrecoverable. It's a low budget film, but the storm effects are well done, and most of the exteriors were shot on a real ship, which gives those scenes some interesting verisimilitude. Gibson Gowland, star of Von Stroheim's great GREED, has a small part as a crew member. Clifford McLaglen is the brother of Victor McLaglen, Oscar winner in 1935 for THE INFORMER. A decent mystery/thriller.

Friday, March 14, 2003


Fast paced, entertaining trifle with a solid supporting cast. Eric Linden strikes the right tone as an innocent but enthusiastic lad from rural Indiana who uses some inherited money to finance a trip to New York City to make his fortune. The ticket agent at the train station, Grant Mitchell, expresses skepticism and bets that he'll be back within a month. Staying in a fancy hotel room that he can barely afford, he seeks help from his older cousin, Walter Catlett; Linden thinks his cousin is a well-off man about town, but we know that he's a grifter, living day to day by whatever means possible, so Catlett looks upon Linden as his current meal ticket and soon the boy is squandering all of his nest egg on Catlett and his unsavory friends. Joan Blondell is Vida, a tough skinned chorus girl who happens to hail from a small town herself and soon falls for the kid. A drunken party in Linden's room gets out of control and a girl is accidently killed. Linden and Blondell are hunted down as likely suspects, while Guy Kibbee, the alcoholic hotel security man, eventually stumbles on the real killer in a rather quirky little plot twist that I won't spoil. Linden is blandly handsome, a bit like a second-string Jimmy Stewart, and he plays the role well with just enough piss and vinegar to make Blondell's crush seem realistic--although his standard way of flirting with her is to stare intensely at her like she's from another planet. Among the fine Warner Brothers supporting players present are Ned Sparks as a dissolute partyer (or is that "partier"? Neither one looks quite right!), Lyle Talbot as a young ruffian, and Humphrey Bogart as a slightly older ruffian who is always at odds with Talbot. Clarence Muse has a out-of-the-blue musical number at a nightclub, singing a nice little song called "Everyday Can Be Sunday." It really is a nice song, and I wonder why it never caught on. Fairly well written, well performed, generally amusing where it should be, and short enough not to wear out its welcome.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003


Spoiler included!!
None of my film noir reference books list this movie, but it certainly looks and feels like a noir, what with lots of shadowy atmosphere, a potential femme fatale (actually three), and attention to psychological matters. John Garfield is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who went through torture, survived, and has just been released from psychiatric care. He returns to his friends in New York City in the aftermath of the death of a war buddy; the cops called it suicide (a jump through a window at a party), but Garfield suspects foul play and decides he owes it to his friend to investigate. Some of the folks who might have some knowledge of the real circumstances of the death include Martha O'Driscoll (a singing socialite), John Banner (her pianist), Hugh Beaumont, Patricia Morison, and Maureen O'Hara. They all have connections to Walter Slezak, a well-regarded European war refugee in a wheelchair, whom we quickly suspect may be up to no good. It turns out that Nazi spies are after a war flag that Garfield and his dead friend had taken from a battleground. Garfield spends a lot of time creeping around in dark apartments, trying to get to the bottom of the situation, even as he suffers flashbacks from his torture, particularly the sound of a swishing limp that he frequently heard outside his cell. The plot becomes needlessly convoluted, but as with many a film noir, the plot isn't really the point. It is crystal clear from about 15 minutes in that Slezak is the Nazi boss, but from the way he is revealed toward the end, it seems like the director really thought we'd be surprised by that information. The real question is, which of the three women is the femme fatale? About midway through, another noir connection dawned on me: it's a lot like a wartime version of THE MALTESE FALCON. There's the noble loner who feels dutybound to hunt for the killer of his friend, there's a suspicious fat man, there are women involved with the hero who may not be what they seem, and there's the McGuffin at the center (the flag instead of the Falcon) that winds up being one of the least important elements of the movie. Garfield gives a fine performance and, despite the hard-to-follow plot, this one is worth sticking with to the end.

Sunday, March 09, 2003


According to the critics, this is the best of the movies in the Philo Vance series. I read one of these a year or so ago, THE CASINO MURDER CASE, and liked it quite a bit, and was surprised to find out that William Powell played Vance in a few of the films. In S. S. Van Dine's books, the character is rather fey and talks like a highfalutin' hillbilly, and neither characteristic do I associate with Powell. Thankfully, they let Powell act and talk like Powell. Other movies Vances include Paul Lukas, Basil Rathbone, and James Stephenson (I hope to review his film soon). Most of the Vance movies are from the early 30's and difficult to run across--I'm keeping my eye out for CASINO. This one is pretty standard murder mystery fare. Powell solves a case involving the killing of a dog at a ritzy dog show, followed by the apparent suicide of the nasty man who might have killed the dog. Of course, it turns out to be a locked-room murder and Philo Vance has to solve it. Powell is handsome and charming, rather like a sober Nick Charles (THE THIN MAN would come the next year). Others in the cast include Mary Astor (sexy but ultimately just red herring material), Eugene Pallette, Ralph Morgan, and Helen Vinson. This may not be the first movie to show the solution to the murder by a reenactment flashback through the eyes of the killer, but it must be one of the earliest. Standard but quite watchable mystery with all the stereotypes intact.

Friday, March 07, 2003


Released in January of '42 and therefore certainly written and filmed before Peal Harbor, this B-film is an awkward blend of crime thriller and preparing-for-war propaganda. Robert Young is a factory worker who is tested by some government men and given a job working on a top secret bombsight for military planes (we assume for eventual war use). Through the episodic opening, we see that Young is an average, everyday Joe (literally), friendly, laidback, a good husband and father, and a loyal American. After his first day on the job, he is abducted at the end of his shift by enemy spies (Nazis, certainly, though I don't think they are identified), roughed up and eventually tortured in an attempt to get him to spill the beans about his secret project. Badly bruised and bound, he holds out, partly through thinking about his wife and family--we even get flashbacks to their courtship. He eventually escapes from a moving car and, though blindfolded for most of his ordeal, he manages to reconstruct the events of the night for the police who work backwards to try to find the spies' hideout. Despite the flag-waving defense of patriotism, strength, family, and American ingenuity, this is mostly too bland to be inspiring. The last half-hour generates some noirish atmosphere, utilizing shadows and off-kilter, point-of-view photography (for example, we don't see the faces of the brutal spies while Young is blindfolded). His wife is played by Marsha Hunt and his son is Daryl Hickman; his boss, who winds up playing a surprise role in the proceedings, is Jonathan Hale. Frank Faylen and Ava Gardner have bit parts. Young's roughing-up is carried off well, but overall, the crime/mystery elements and the progpaganda elements don't work together that well. This might have come off better had it been made a few months after Pearl Harbor rather than before.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003


An MGM version of the Warner Brothers backstage musical, and a pleasant surprise as it stars two actors I'm ambivalent about: Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. I'm not a big fan of either one of them after they became superstars in the 40's, but I like them well enough earlier in their careers before their screen personas became so solidified. Crawford plays an ambitious chorus girl who strips at a burlesque house while waiting for a big break. A millionaire playboy (Franchot Tone, in the kind of second fiddle part he did best) falls for her and tries to get her to marry him. A career is more important to her, however, and she gets a job in a Broadway musical being staged by Gable, with backing money from Tone. Romantic complications ensue; just as she gets a shot at a leading role (and just as Gable is finding her attractive rather than irritating), Tone withdraws his support, knowing the show will be shut down and assuming Crawford will settle down with him. In the end, however, she manages to get both Gable and a career.

This is glossier than the WB musicals but also more slowly paced with less witty (and naughty) dialogue. The musical numbers are Berkleyesque, although staged by Sammy Lee and Eddie Prinz. They are all clustered together in the last third of the film and contain stage-defying effects, with the occasional ceiling shot. One interesting effect has people dressed in 18th century clothes who pass through an arch and emerge in modern dress. Another has Fred Astaire (playing himself) and Crawford levitating on a flying carpet. Other cast members include May Robson as Tone's grandmother, Winnie Lightner as Crawford's buddy, and Robert Benchley as a drunken gossip columnist. Look closely and you'll catch Sterling Holloway (as a sensitive and maybe gay playwright), Grant Mitchell, Nelson Eddy, and Eve Arden. Oh, and the Three Stooges if you like that sort of thing. Good fun all around, even if Crawford does make a rather clunky dancer.

Sunday, March 02, 2003


A solid RKO B-picture with a familiar plot which transcends its roots through good acting and some interesting characterizations. A small planeload of people crash in a South American jungle; like on Gilligan's Island, the survivors make do until the plane is fixed as little psychodramas occur among them. Chester Morris is the solid, square-jawed pilot and Kent Taylor is his co-pilot. Allen Jenkins does a nice turn against type as a gangster's confidant who has been entrusted with taking care of the gangster's young son; though he has some comic moments, his part is mostly played straight. Lucille Ball is a whore whose motherly heart of gold is brought out by Jenkins' situation. John Carradine is escorting an anarchist, Joseph Calleia, to prison and execution. In a neat twist, Carradine unravels to become the weak link in the group, and Calleia develops and grows as a character. I think he also serves as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's socialist views--the group bonds together like a commune to survive. Trumbo was blacklisted in the 50's for his ties to the Communist party and this movie's plotline probably wound up as evidence against him. C. Aubrey Smith is an older man who bonds with Calleia. Patric Knowles is an alcoholic asshole who becomes the thorn in everyone's side. When it develops that the crippled plane will only be able to take off with five people, and the rest will have to stay on the ground at the mercy of torturing headhunters, it's pretty clear that Knowles won't be one of the five! An interesting and compelling movie.

Saturday, March 01, 2003

When Bad Movies Happen to Good People

THE MASK OF DIIJON (1946): Erich von Stroheim was perhaps more important to the history of movies as a director, but he didn't do badly as an actor, appearing in some 70 movies and embodying the archetype of the stiff, ruthless, but honorable Prussian (GRAND ILLUSION and SUNSET BOULEVARD). Between those two great films, he was in some good movies, like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, and some bad ones, like this Poverty Row thriller about a down-on-his-luck stage magician who dabbles in hypnosis (theoretically as a way to get "in touch with the infinite," a phrase which made me think of Professor Marvel in THE WIZARD OF OZ). He manages to stop a robbery using the reflected light off of his lighter, but when he tries to use hypnosis in his stage act with his wife (Jeanne Bates), it fails. Thinking his wife is in cahoots with another man (William Wright) to sabotage his career, he winds up using his power for evil, getting someone to commit suicide and trying to force his wife to kill. Aside from a very effective opening that looks like a French Revolution beheading but turns out to be a stage trick, the whole thing is plodding and silly and would be totally forgettable except for von Stroheim. I can't believe that this junky little sub-B film is available on DVD but ALL THAT JAZZ and TOP HAT aren't!

LADY SCARFACE (1941): Dame Judith Anderson's niche in Hollywood was playing supporting roles as tough, often sinister women. Her best and most indelible role was one of her first, as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA. It's hard to believe that she got stuck in this trashy film the very next year. I suppose her name and the interesting title led me to expect too much--it's basically a shoddy B-crime story with Dennis O'Keefe and Frances Neal as a cop and his gal who try to track down the members of a crime gang. The only trick the movie has is that the cops don't know the boss is a woman (Anderson). Despite her title billing, Anderson has little to do and the "star" couple are bland beyond belief. Arthur Shields (brother of Barry Fitzgerald) has a small bit and Eric Blore, who usually livens up any movie, doesn't really get a chance. Don't bother.