Monday, April 28, 2003


Fairly amusing gold digger story from Warner Brothers, starring Joan Blondell, though this one's not a musical. Blondell is Rosie, a manicurist who dates Robert Montgomery, a small-potatoes gangster. Like Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS, Blondell has been waiting for her man to get serious, but he finally offers her a ring, her buddy Glenda Farrell tells her she could do better financially. When Armstrong leaves town on business, Blondell lets Gordon Westcott take her out; he steals her ring and, to escape Armstrong's wrath, the girls head overseas via passenger liner, getting bankrolled along the way by millionaire doofus Hugh Herbert, who is having romantic problems of his own. They all wind up in Paris, with Herbert's wife conspiring with a crooked lawyer to get a good divorce settlement from him. In the end, Herbert gets the divorce to settle down with Farrell, and Blondell and Armstrong patch things up. Not great but not bad--typical of its genre and time. The two halves of the film are fun but they don't connect in a pleasing way, with the pre-Paris stuff working the best. Armstrong (finder of the ape in KING KONG) is far more animated than I've ever seen him. Osgood Perkins, Anthony's father, plays the lawyer; T. Roy Barnes is a handsome alderman on the ship; Vince Barnett is a sidekick of Armstrong's who spies on Blondell for him. Blondell, Farrell, and Herbert all do their trademarked things and do them well. Definitely worth seeing for Blondell fans.

Saturday, April 26, 2003


A typical 30's prison movie, but set in a reform school; I assume this was the model for later films like the Dead End Kids' CRIME SCHOOL. Dudley Digges is the sadistic warden at a boy's reformatory; James Cagney is the gangsterish fellow who gets appointed deputy commissioner as a political favor for delivering votes. Cagney arrives at the reform school one night with buddy Allen Jenkins in tow, planning on putting in a token appearance and leaving, but instead he gets fired up about reforming the reformatory at the instigation of the pretty school nurse (Madge Evans). The focus among the inmates is a group of boys who, during a dime store robbery, seriously injure the store owner. Frankie Darro is the sulking ringleader who wears his bad attitude like a badge. Eventually he comes to trust Cagney & Evans, and when they institute a self-governing policy, Darro becomes "mayor," helping to preside over the school store and the court. In an odd plot twist, Cagney winds up shooting a rival in the city and has to go on the lam. While he's gone, the disgraced warden takes control of the school, clamping down hard and overriding the reforms. Soon a sickly boy who Digges has put in solitary dies and the kids, led by Darro, revolt. Fire and death result, but everyone ends up let off rather lightly, including Cagney. I imagine a year later, after the Production Code was toughened up, punishments for the "guilty" characters would have been more severe.

Cagney is good, though Evans is stilted and totally unconvincing once she falls for Cagney. But Darro steals the show. His energy, presence, and good looks should have gotten him further in Hollywood, but like so many teen actors, he never broke out of that mold, although he did sustain a career in B-movies, appearing in over 150 films from the silent era up through the late 50's. His character here is predictable, but Darro is always commanding on screen. Truth to tell, he's more likeable when he's being sullen and stubborn; he's less interesting when he straightens up. But then, so is Cagney! Jenkins is comic relief as the tough guy who becomes an unlikely "uncle" figure to the kids. Allen Hoskins, known as "Farina" in some of the early Our Gang movies, plays the lone black kid. Sidney Miller is Izzy, the lone (and occasionally obnoxiously stereotyped) Jewish kid. A good Warners juvenile crime film, worth catching for Cagney and Darro.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003


Not quite a screwball comedy, but very silly--it makes BRINGING UP BABY seem like Ibsen. Jane Wyman plays a consumer advocate who runs a "Consumer Reports"-type company. Her motto is, "Truth always." In the midst of some important negotiations involving grant money, she gets lost during a storm and is saved by Dennis Morgan, a scientist working for the government on a top secret mission involving a weird submarine/tractor contraption. Wyman tells her strange rescue story to the press but they fail to believe her and Morgan, because of the secrecy surrounding his job, doesn't speak up to save her reputation, so her career winds up in jeopardy. The supporting cast includes William Frawley and Allen Joslyn, and best of all, Eve Arden, criminally underused as Wyman's best friend, the kind of part she could play in her sleep. Plot loopholes abound and get bigger and more ridiculous as the movie goes on. The worst part is that, as in so many movies of the time, the female ends up chucking her career to land a man. Wyman seems uncomfortable in this trifle, and Morgan looks tired, just past his mid-40's prime.

Saturday, April 19, 2003


Last month, I badmouthed a Fox musical, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, for being bland and underproduced. and for taking itself and its fictional biographizing (I'm sure that's not really a word) too seriously. This Fox musical from a few years later is much more enjoyable, perhaps because it's not serious in any way, but also because of the presence of Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Miller himself plays second-in-command to bandleader John Payne, who is very handsome and has a nice voice, but is not very convincing looking as a piano player. Payne, Miller, and their Dartmouth Troubadours are looking for a gig and are lucky enough to be present in a studio as diva Lynn Bari quits her dysfunctional band in the middle of an audition. Payne volunteers to back her up; they finish the audition and get the job, playing at Sun Valley, an upscale ski resort in Utah. Payne and Bari fall for each other, but complications arise when Sonja Henie arrives; she's a Norwegian war refugee who is assigned to Payne, due to a publicity stunt dreamed up by Payne's manager (Milton Berle). They thought they were getting a kid, but Henie is a fully grown blonde who immediately sets her cap for Payne. Henie is OK (she was known more for her skating than her acting, though she only really gets one full-out skating number here), but I found her character irritating and unlikeable, motivated by nothing more than a whim to land Payne and mess up his thing with Bari--which itself plays out rather half-heartedly.

The silly plot mechanisms, however, are strictly secondary to the fun musical numbers. The Miller band does "Moonlight Serenade," a great version of "In the Mood," and best of all, "Chattanooga Choo Choo," written for the film and nominated for an Oscar. The 10 minute long number consists of three different versions of the song: an instrumental, a vocal version with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires, and a jazzy dance number with the fabulous Nicholas Brothers, with vocals by Dorothy Dandridge. That number alone makes the 90 minute film worth sitting through. The tone of the movie is light, though the stuff that is intended as "comic relief" is mild at best: Berle's schtick is so-so, mostly because he doesn't really have much to do, and "wacky" Joan Davis has so little to do that she barely gets a chance to register. Almira Sessions has a nice moment as the disapproving maid who was hired to take care of "the little refugee," and who assumes she's been made a fool of when she meets Henie. The Sun Valley settings are lovely, as are the skiing scenes, although it's clear that most of that stuff is second unit and the stars are all shot in the studio in front of rear projection. It takes place at Christmas, according to a passing reference early in the movie, but there are virtually no holiday trappings present. Overall, a delightful movie, especially for Glenn Miller fans.

Thursday, April 17, 2003


A B-thriller, sort of a film noir forerunner, based on a short story by James M. Cain, author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Jeffrey Lynn plays a bank official sent to a branch office to check up on a teller (Roger Pryor) who is going gangbusters at getting and keeping investors. When Lynn offers Pryor a transfer to a better position at a different bank, he balks, then suffers a heart attack. While he recovers, his wife (Brenda Marshall), a former bank employee, fills in for him. Soon Lynn discovers that Pryor's accounts are $9000 short. Lynn and the local bank manager (John Litel) suspect that Marshall and Pryor are in on some scam together, but Marshall insists she isn't, so Lynn puts his own job on the line to clear her. Is Marshall the femme fatale, or could it be Lee Patrick as the mousy (and wonderfully named) Martha Chruch, who is Pryor's accomplice? The cast is practically a who's who of the Warner Brothers B-movie company (also with Henry O'Neill and Henry Kolker, and Willie Best as Lynn's obsequious butler), and though most of them are clearly second string, they all do fine considering the obvious budget limitations as far as the set and the direction--though there is a nice little montage of daily bank operations that opens the movie. Not exactly worth searching out, but worth its 70 minute running time if you stumble across it on TCM some afternoon.

Monday, April 14, 2003


This isn't an old movie, and it's not likely to be remembered as a classic, but to a certain degree, it's about old movies, and classic movie fans will have fun noticing the influences and references. The director, Frank Darabont, was clearly trying to update Frank Capra; the extent to which you think he succeeds will depend on your tolerance for "Capracorn" and for totally shameless emotional manipulation. There are really the seeds for three different movies here, and only one comes to fruition. The opening makes us think we're in for some scathing satire of Hollywood--in 1951, a lowly B-movie screenwriter (Jim Carrey) is subjected to a conference in which a bunch of producers (unseen by us, but heard, in the voices of Carl and Rob Reiner, among others) try tweaking his story so it will be more marketable. The satire, however, pretty much ends in the first three minutes as the second film, about the Hollywood blacklist, begins: Carrey finds out he will be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because, years ago, he attended a Communist function (solely to impress a girl). His studio and his current girlfriend dump him. Distraught and drunk, Carrey accidently drives off a bridge into a river.

The blacklist movie basically ends here and the third movie, the Capra one, picks up: he washes up with amnesia in a small California town. It turns out that he looks a lot like a soldier who was declared dead overseas during WWII. The townspeople believe he has been miraculously restored to them, and Carrey, not knowing any differently, buys into their fantasy. The soldier's father, Martin Landau, gets a new lease on life and decides to reopen the long-shuttered movie house, the Majestic. The rest of the town comes back to life (they've all been basically "walking wounded" because they lost a disproportionate number of young men in the war), but of course, you know it won't be long before the truth comes out. The movie is way, way too long (2 1/2 hours) and Darabont has to hit every possible emotional button he can. He out-Capras Capra as far as attempts at noble and inspiring tearjerking moments, and though some hit their mark (as some are bound to), there are just too many thrown at us in the last hour of the film. Jim Carrey, who I am not a fan of, is very good; he manages to completely avoid his usual tics and schtick and he brings his character fully to life. Landau is superb, and the cast includes James Whitmore and Hal Holbrook. I'm about a big a Capra fan as you could find, but even I got tired of the constant and very predictable manipulation; on top of which, the production values are just too glossy for the movie's good. Nonetheless, it was worth watching once; a director's cut that is actually *cut* down quite a bit would be a great improvement.

Thursday, April 10, 2003


Spoiler below!!
An archetypal "woman's picture," a 30's version of a "chick flick"; it has a melodramatic soap opera tone, but it also has a great performance by Barbara Stanwyck at its center. She plays the title character, a girl from a working class family who falls in love with John Boles, a former upper-class fellow who fell from grace when his rich father lost his fortune and killed himself. She's loose and funloving, and he's uptight; they're a bit like a 30's Dharma & Greg. He gets the opportunity to go back to his roots in New York City, but Stanwyck is afraid she won't fit in with his old friends, so she stays behind and raises their daughter (Anne Shirley). Stanwyck remains resolutely lower-class in her tastes and choice of friends (particularly the loud and vulgar Alan Hale) and begins, unwittingly, to tarnish her daughter's chances at upward social mobility. When Boles divorces Stanwyck and marries a rich widow (Barbara O'Neill), Stanwyck is torn between holding onto her daughter or letting her become part of her father's social set. One memorable scene involves Shirley's birthday party, which is boycotted by her too-tasteful friends. By the end, Stanwyck gives up her daughter so she can make a good marriage (to Tim Holt), and the famous climax has Stanwyck standing in the pouring rain, watching Shirley's marriage through a window. Throughout, Stanwyck does a fine job looking dowdy and tacky, and acting loud and trashy. It's a bit of a stretch for Stanwyck and she pulls it off very well. Marjorie Main has a small role as beaten-down mother.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003


RKO released this about two months before Warners released Paul Muni's I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, but this is the one that feels like a cheap retread of the same material. It's got a B-movie feel and a largely second string cast, but it has its moments. The movie is anchored by a solid performance from silent film star Richard Dix as a career criminal stuck on a chain gang, though he never really comes as scruffy or hardened as he should. An escape that Dix and some pals are about to pull off is derailed with the arrival of Dix's younger brother (Tom Brown). The clean cut innocent is clearly not the criminal type and a sympathetic overseer (Stanley Fields) knows that, so he arranges for Brown to get a fairly soft clerking position, and Dix doesn't join the breakout, opting to stay and watch out for his brother. There's a weird subplot involving a polygamous prisoner (Charles Middleton, coming off a lot like John Carradine) who pretends to be able to read people's fortunes in the stars; Warner Richmond plays a guard who is driven to kill his wife based on Middleton's predictions of adultery. The use of a sweatbox as punishment leads to a prisoner's death and brings unwanted pressure on a construction boss (Oscar Apfel) who is using the gang to finish a project and the overseeing warden (C. Henry Gordon, who briefly shows a softer side to his character when we see him practicing his violin). An uprising, triggered unwittingly by Brown, leads to fire and mass escape and death. Dix, who discovers he has been sentenced to death, redeems himself at the end. Also with Louise Beavers as a prisoner's wife and Rochelle Hudson as Brown's girl. The soundtrack has a lot of gloomy spirituals sung impeccably by the segregated black prisoners. Short and fairly well paced, though it has nowhere near the power of the Paul Muni chain gang movie.

Friday, April 04, 2003


A predictable melodrama with a plot trajectory very similar to the later THE CITADEL. Ricardo Cortez plays a young man who grows up poor and Jewish on the lower East side of New York City; he and his family sacrifice so he can to go medical school. He becomes a doctor and returns to his old neighborhood to tend to the poor, often for little or no payment. But egged on by his well-intentioned family (mother Anna Appel, father Gregory Ratoff, and brother Noel Madison), he moves uptown and soon has fame and fortune thanks to his idle rich patients. In a nice touch, we see that he is the subject of a Vanity Fair article that refers to his "million dollar hands." He helps his family move to a better neighborhood, but he ignores his poor patients, including his crippled childhood friend Irene Dunne. Eventually, things start to fall apart: he forgets that he scheduled an operation for one of the poor children and consquently, the child dies; he tries but fails to save his sick father. Of course, when he hits bottom, all that's left is for him to reorder his priorities, with the help of Dunne. Cortez is aged well through the film (unlike Dunne or Ratoff) and is mostly fine in the part. One important scene is set at a Jewish ritual I'd never heard of called the Redemption of the First Born, when the father of a new firstborn "buys" the child from God. The movie has the reputation of being an effective tearjerker, but I found it a bit too much, particularly Cortez's big confrontation with Dunne which comes off as overheated soap opera.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003


This creepy thriller, filmed in England and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, was a victim of the anti-horror film movement of its time; it never got a full release in England and only limited showings in the States. It was long presumed lost but has survived into the DVD age, albeit in a grainy and murky print. The film has elements of a previous Karloff/Lugosi collaboration, THE BLACK CAT (cursed land, Karloff as a bad guy and Lugosi as a self-sacrificing good guy), and even anticipates later horror films like THE WICKER MAN (human sacrifice and secret doings by villagers). The famous opening scene is hard to beat: on a clear, moonlit night, a man is chased through a wheatfield by a menacing inhuman figure. He enters the tower (of the title), which reminds me of the tower in VERTIGO, and races up the steps to the top to find Karloff standing there. He begs Karloff for help, but Karloff steps back and lets the thing in the shadows onto the parapet. We see a close-up of the man shrieking at the camera, then we see him leap off the tower into the wheatfield below. The last shot of this masterful opening is of a trickle of blood seeping into the ground. It turns out that Karloff is Lord Belvedere, owner of the most fertile land in the country; he ensures good crops by literally feeding the land with blood sacrifices as his family has done for generations. Karloff has an army of supernatural creatures who look like werewolves and lurching scarecrows and are mostly only seen in shadow. They rise from the fields at night whenever a sacrifice is needed. This happens three or four times in the film and each time, it's unsettling. Lugosi comes looking for his lost brother-in-law, the victim from the opening scene. David Manners and Gloria Stuart are the romantic leads (they're visiting Americans so they don't have to do British accents). Tommy Hoddle and Billy Bingo, who were apparently the British Laurel & Hardy, are the slapsticky comic relief, and the film gets so intense that the comedy is actually welcome. The satisfying climax has Karloff facing his own creatures at the top of the tower as Lugosi tries to save Manners and Stuart. Directed by Giles Spence and made by Campbell Films, this is certainly as good if not better than any of the classic Universal films.