Friday, May 30, 2003


Spoilers Below!
A classic film noir that gets off on the wrong foot for me since it's about the numbers racket and I always get lost in that kind of story. John Garfield plays a lawyer for a mob boss (Roy Roberts); the boss is about to launch a plan to turn his racket legit, but it involves driving out of business most of the "small guy" operators, one of whom is Garfield's brother, Thomas Gomez. The brothers aren't close but Garfield thinks he owes it to Gomez to help him out without giving away just how much he knows from being on the inside. Gomez, however, won't take a hint and his business falls apart, hurting him, his wife, and his employees, most of whom don't seem to know that they're involved in an illegal operation. Garfield gets close to Gomez's goody-goody secretary (Beatrice Pearson), though there is a brief subplot in which the mob boss's wife (Marie Windsor) comes on to him as well. Eventually, Gomez is killed and Garfield, in an attack of conscience, turns informer. The tense last 10 minutes or so is the best part of the movie, ending with a nicely symbolic journey downward for Garfield's catharsis. I may have gotten a few of the plot points garbled, but the film is worth seeing; it's moody, dark, and claustrophobic, and Garfield is at his best.

Thursday, May 29, 2003


A Warners B-comedy which, like many of them, begins well but peters out quickly. The charm of the young, attractive Eddie Albert goes a long way toward giving this movie life, but his character isn't particularly well-written or consistent. Albert, the son of a mattress factory owner (Alan Hale), marries the daughter (Joan Leslie) of his father's chief competitor. At the urging of his meddling grandmother (Jane Darwell), he sells his mother's legacy to get the money to buy a company that supplies both his father and his father-in-law with mattress parts. Naturally, things go awry. Darwell is pretty good in a role that's very different from Ma Joad (THE GRAPES OP WRATH). Anthony Quinn and Frank Faylen are gangsters that Albert gets tangled up with. Other supporting cast members of note are John Litel, Edward Brophy, and William T. Orr as a rival for Joan's affections. The film is short but the last half drags, redeemed when Darwell stands up to her kidnappers, who have mistaken her for Albert's mother. The earlier sparring between Darwell and Hale is fun, and Albert carries as much of the picture as he can. At heart, it's a feisty grandma movie.

Monday, May 26, 2003


I need to preface this by saying that I am not an expert on, nor a big fan of, silent movies. I've seen and liked a number of the acknowledged classics, like GREED, INTOLERANCE, and CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, but I don't tend to seek out silent films. Charlie Chaplin's appeal is beyond me and I don't think I've ever seen a Buster Keaton silent film. But I very much enjoyed this Harold Lloyd film, part of TCM's recent festival of his movies, most of which have not been seen in many years. Lloyd's persona seems to be sprightlier and more immediately likeable than Chaplin's--he's a generally nice guy who is mostly unaffected by the setbacks suffered in his adventures. In this one, Lloyd plays a lad named Harold whom we meet as he is about to set off to college. Because of a movie he saw, he thinks that the best way to introduce himself will be to dance a little jig, stick out his hand, and say, "Just call me Speedy!" When he gets to campus, this routine doesn't go over very well and he becomes the laughing stock of the freshmen class, but Lloyd remains oblivious to their reactions and assumes he is well on his way to becoming the next Big Man on Campus. Pretty young Jobyna Ralston is smitten with Lloyd and feels sorry for him as he is made the butt of jokes by unkind upperclassmen. Eventually, he manages to more or less accidently score the winning touchdown for his football team during the big game and he really does become accepted, with everyone adopting his shuffling jig greeting.

I love Lloyd's jig, cracking up each time he did it, and I liked his unceasing upbeat attitude. Three scenes stand out to me: a school dance where his tuxedo, which isn't quite finished, comes apart on the dance floor; his tryout for the football team, in which he winds up being used as a tackling dummy by the whole team; and the final game, which surely must have been an inspiration for the similar climactic scene in the Marx Brothers' HORSE FEATHERS a few years later; it comes off better here. There is a funny joke, still relevant in many a college town, about the school being "a football stadium with a college attached." The effect of the mass media on people's expectations and behavior, reflected in Lloyd's jig, also remains a relevant theme. Lloyd is funny and sweet and the movie never bogs down. Great fun.

Friday, May 23, 2003


David Lean directed this wonderful adaptation of the Dickens classic which I've never read but feel like I know well through the musical OLIVER! (stage versions and soundtrack albums, not the rather drab film version). The atmospheric opening feels very much like GREAT EXPECTATIONS, but in this instance with a stormy moor and a lone figure heading for a bleak building. It turns out to be a pregnant woman who gives birth in a workhouse. She dies soon after, leaving a locket with a midwife as the only clue to her identity. The boy, named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies), is raised in an orphanage and is generally mild and passive, except when he makes the mistake of asking for more food, which gets him kicked out and sold in apprenticeship to an undertaker. He escapes that wretched situation and is befriended by a gang of youthful pickpockets who work with the grungy old thief Fagin (Alec Guinness, excellent in the role and made up to look much older than his 34 years) who acts as their fence and father figure. The plot seems to adhere to Dickens fairly well, except that Nancy (Kay Walsh) isn't particularly close to Oliver before she risks her neck to save him from the dangers of tough guy Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) toward the end. Her sacrifice seems to come out of the blue and doesn't have the resonance it does in the musical (and, I assume, in the novel). A young Anthony Newley is the Artful Dodger and Henry Stephenson is Oliver's rich benefactor. The scene of Bill Sikes' attack on Nancy is quite well done--all we see is Bill's dog frantically trying to scratch its way out of the room through the door as Sikes brutally beats Nancy offscreen. The ending is an overblown scene of mob justice that doesn't work; it's difficult to imagine that hundreds of people would get so worked up over the capture of a common thief and a hooligan who killed a whore. The sets are good, especially Fagin's rather spacious hideout. Overall, as good as, and maybe better than, Lean's earlier GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003


A strong supporting cast is wasted in this weak comedy. Marion Davies plays a hick from the sticks who comes to New York City for no apparent reason other than to be the protagonist of the movie. She gets a job as a maid at a fancy hotel, working with Patsy Kelly. They strike up a friendship of sorts with two guys, Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh, who are fast running out of money and face eviction. In a farfetched scheme, the group creates a composite photo from the faces of Garbo, Dietrich, Harlow, and Kay Francis to enter in a radio beauty contest and the ficticious creation wins first prize. The two guys and McHugh's girlfriend (Mary Astor) rake in the bucks making endorsement deals until aviator Dick Powell proposes to the girl (named Dawn Glory) over the radio and they have to come up with a flesh-and-blood Miss Glory. They get Davies to impersonate the photo which leads to various shenanigans involving reporters, gangsters, and competing yeast companies. The farcical proceedings eventually become tedious, but aside from the bland Davies, the cast is fun to watch. Lyle Talbot is a reporter, Lionel Stander is a lug who is sweet on Davies, and Allen Jenkins and Barton MacLane are the gangsters. Al Shean, a vaudeville mentor to the Marx Brothers, plays one of the yeast company presidents. Powell has a couple of songs, one of which he sings from inside a picture frame as Davies fantasizes about him. Astor is misused (could you ever picture her being romantically involved with someone like Frank McHugh?), but is still a bright spot. Silly and overlong, but a chance to see a solid cast of supporting players.

Monday, May 19, 2003


I haven't been a big Bing Crosby fan, even though GOING MY WAY is one of my favorite movies, but this is a light and likeable musical that has made me decide to search out some other Crosby/Paramount musicals of the era. Bing plays a laid back fellow who can't quite commit to a full-fledged musical career, so he ghostwrites melodies for a famous songwriter (Basil Rathbone) who lost his touch after the great romance of his life went sour. Unknown to Crosby, Rathbone has his lyrics ghosted as well, and when his ghost drops dead one day, he hires young Mary Martin as a replacement. Soon, by typical Hollywood coincidence, Crosby and Martin meet up at Crosby's uncle's country inn (cleverly called the Nobody's Inn). At first, they rub each other the wrong way, but soon they pair up, romantically and musically, still not aware of their Rathbone connection. Musical complications lead to romantic complications, particularly when she thinks that he has stolen a private love song of theirs to sell to Rathbone.

The first thing that struck me as I was watching was the overlap of some elements between this and HOLIDAY INN, a more famous Crosby/Paramount musical of two years later. There's a country inn, some snow, Crosby sitting at a piano smoking a pipe as he composes and falls in love, and the showbiz career plotline, including Crosby being torn between taking it easy and maintaing a career. The next thing that struck me was how good Mary Martin was, which made me sad that her Hollywood career wasn't stronger. She made a handful of movies in the early 40's, most of which seem to have been forgettable and forgotten, except for her wonderful number "Hit the Road to Dreamland" in STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (reviewed here 1/02), then headed to Broadway to become a success there. Rathbone is pretty good playing against type, though at times he does seem a bit uncomfortable; George Sanders or an older character actor like Charles Coburn might have been fun in the part. Or, if they'd wanted to make a romantic triangle, Tyrone Power. Oscar Levant steals most of his scenes as Billy Starbuck, Rathbone's musical secretary--the problem is that he's so clearly talented that one wonders why Rathbone didn't just hire Levant to write his songs. Charley Grapewin is the uncle and William Frawley has a small role as a music publisher. There are some memorable songs including "Only Forever" (which was nominated for an Oscar), "Ain't It a Shame About Mame," and the fun title song, done with Crosby and a "hot jazz" combo in a hock shop. Bilky Wilder had a hand in the screenplay. One clever in-joke: Starbuck (Levant) is seen at one point reading a book by Oscar Levant. This film is available on a Bing Crosby "twofer" DVD and I recommend it highly--not one for the ages, but very enjoyable.

Saturday, May 17, 2003


The last movie that Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. In some places, this one is almost as surreal and delirious as SCARLET EMPRESS, but it's not nearly as satisfying as most of their collaborations. In Spain during a street festival, young revolutionary Cesar Romero meets up with older military man Lionel Atwill, who warns him about succumbing to the charms of the lovely Concha (Dietrich), the local femme fatale. In a flashback sequence that takes up most of the film's length, we see Atwill fall for the fickle (and perhaps sadomasochistic) Dietrich, who leads him on a humiliating chase involving money, favors, and cheating. It's a little difficult given the Production Code strictures to know if and when Atwill and Dietrich actually consummate their relationship, but there's no doubt that she leaves a string of disappointed and frustrated men in her path. Despite Atwill's warning, Romero falls for Dietrich, and Atwill winds up in a duel with him.

Like most of Von Sternberg's films, this is visually striking, with elaborate costumes, detailed sets, and shimmering black and white cinematography. Romero is sexy and interesting, before he became something of a fluffy stereotyped Latin lover; Atwill does a fairly good job playing against type as a romantic hero (or anti-hero), though someone like John Barrymore or maybe even Gary Cooper would have given the role more heft. Dietrich is sometimes too petulant; it feels like she couldn't quite get a handle on her character, and therefore she comes off as not quite believable. One scene, where she won't kiss Atwill because she doesn't want to muss her hair, reminded me of a similar scene played for laughs between Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Edward Everett Horton has a small role, and Alison Skipworth is fine as Dietrich's scheming mother. Not a great film, but like all of the Dietrich/Sternberg films, quite watchable.

Thursday, May 15, 2003


A fairly inept Poverty Row thriller that blends elements of horror and science fiction. Lyle Talbot is the skipper of a ship for his uncle Irving Pichel, a scientist who has helped a number of convicted killers escape prison so he can take them out in international waters to perform experiements on them; by messing around with the endocrine glands, he is developing a serum that would stop the criminal urge. One of the killers, Jacqueline Wells (who later in her career took the name Julie Bishop), is actually innocent, and after Talbot discovers what's going on, the two of them bond. The first two subjects of Pichel's experiments don't fare well so he decides he needs to work on a person free of criminal taint, Talbot. Under the influence of the serum, Talbot tries to strangle Wells, then becomes a zombie, then recovers but pretends not to so he can try to get control of the ship after the killers rebel. Poor sets and indifferent acting mar a decent idea that goes nowhere. Oftentimes, atmosphere is all these B-films have going for them, so given that this was directed by Victor Halperin, who did the low budget classic WHITE ZOMBIE, the total lack of atmosphere is quite disappointing. Both of the doctor's assistants, Anthony Averill and Julian Madison, are handsome and sturdy-looking, but spend most of their time standing in the background, until the climax when Averill helps Talbot tackle the killers one by one. Eddie Holden is a ludicrously cliched Swedish sailor who has an amusing scene in which he is being given a shave by one of the killers, Russell Hopton as Harry the Carver. Holden slowly realizes during the shave who is barber really is, and that's about it for any comic relief in the picture. Talbot and Pichel are OK, though Pichel is a little too low-key; they both would have benefited from better writing and direction. For Lyle Talbot fans only.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Two B-movies with Eleanor Parker:

The critics who bother to mention this Warner Brothers B-thriller don't much care for it, but I was pleasantly surprised. A doctor (Lester Matthews) arrives at a small English village one night during the war. He claims to be on a walking tour of Cornwall, but the locals don't take kindly to him, suspecting that he may be a spy. The doctor takes a particular interest in an abandonded mine which is supposedly haunted by a headless ghost. Other characters we get to know include Sir Henry (John Loder), lovely young Letty (Eleanor Parker), an RAF lieutenant (Bruce Lester) and a mildly retarded man (Matt Willis) with a secret in his past. Our sympathies shift occasionally as we learn more about the characters. The movie eventually becomes rather propaganda-heavy, but despite a few loose ends, the ending is satisfying, and at just over an hour, it's exactly the right length. Clearly done on the cheap, but nicely atmospheric. Parker is fine and Loder is better than usual.

A bland wartime crime story. Richard Travis is a cop who poses as corrupt in order to uncover a bootleg tire operation, rubber being scarce due to war consumption. The bootleg tires are actually worn and shoddy, but spruced up to look new, and therefore potentially dangerous for the buyers. Travis' brother, Charles Lang, winds up being involved in the scam, though he gets a chance to redeem himself at the end. Frequent B-movie bad guy Jack LaRue is also in the cast, as is Eleanor Parker, who doesn't have much to do. It all feels more like an episode of a second-rate TV cop show. Travis, who was so terrible as Bette Davis' love interest in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, is a little better here, more in his element. All Movie Guide claims this was the last movie made by the Warners' B crew, but based on many inaccuracies I've found on that web site, I'd take that with a grain of salt.

Sunday, May 11, 2003


By coincidence, here's another Ann Harding movie from 1935 that I watched the day after ENCHANTED APRIL. Harding is better in this one, but her biggest weakness remains her inconsistent comic touch. She plays an infamous artist who paints portraits of the rich and famous and who has become fairly famous herself. As far as the rich part, she seems to spend money as fast as she makes it; early on, we see her furniture being repossessed. Magazine editor Robert Montgomery approaches her, fresh off the boat from Europe, with the idea of helping her write her life story for his magazine, Everyweek. He'll edit her memoirs and pay her good money. She takes him up on the offer, not realizing the distress she causes an old boyfriend, Edward Everett Horton, who happens to be running for the Senate. Horton and his powerful future father-in-law (Charles Richman) try to sabotage the publication of the articles. Horton's fiancee (Una Merkel) is a good egg and doesn't seem to care much about the possibility of scandal. We're never sure just what transpired between Harding and Horton that would be considered so scandalous; apparently, the play the movie was based on may have been more forward about it, but some material was cut to satisfy the Production Code.

The lack of this background and the murky motivations of most of the characters (we never really get to know even the two principals very well) make it a little difficult to get involved in the story, though the actors and the light tone make it mostly fun to watch. Edward Arnold does a nice job (with a German accent) as a rich admirer of Harding's; he serves little purpose in the plot except to show us that Harding wants to marry for love, not money. Greta Meyer is fun as Harding's protective maid; Donald Meek and Mischa Auer have small roles. Merkel, as usual, doesn't have enough to do, but she's a delight whenever she's on screen. The themes of class and tolerance crop up in rather disjointed fashion; see THE PHILADELPHIA STORY for somewhat more coherent treatment. Harding and Montgomery are not among my favorite actors, but both are fine here. Montgomery wears glasses that make him look startlingly like Clark Kent. One amusing line, from Harding to Horton on his political ambitions: "Do you *want* to be a senator, or can't you help it?"

Thursday, May 08, 2003


I've wanted to see this ever since I saw the 1992 remake with Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright. I recall that film as being enjoyable, in a "Merchant-Ivory lite" way, and this version, though not as strong on characterization, is almost as much fun. It opens on a rainy English afternoon, with Ann Harding visiting her local ladies club, meeting up with a stranger (Katherine Alexander), and expressing her frustration with her husband, Frank Morgan. He had been a mild-mannered scholar until, with her prodding, he started writing bestselling romanticized biographies; Alexander happens to be reading his book on Madame Dubarry. Morgan has moved out of the house into a studio (temporarily, he insists) and Harding is feeling at sea. Similarly, Alexander suffers quietly with her husband, Reginald Owen, a stuffy blowhard, something of a exaggerated variation on the charcter of Mr. Banks in MARY POPPINS. The two women decide to rent an villa in Italy for the month of April and to help with expenses, they get two upper-class women, Jessie Ralph as an old dowager and Jane Baxter as a young and lovely heiress, to share the place. The women have some problems adjusting to each other at first, but just as things are going smoothly, the husbands show up. Owen follows out of admiration for his wife's initiative; it turns out that Morgan has been having an affair with Baxter and he arrives to see her, unaware of his wife's presence. Adding to the complications, the villa's owner, Ralph Forbes, a dandyish painter, shows up to flirt with anyone who responds. Very short, just over an hour, and therefore character development is sacrificed. Background about Morgan's affair is nonexistent, and Jessie Ralph's character, though amusing, is made up of superficial stereotypes with no depth. Things are wrapped up far too quickly, as though the studio had a stopwatch running. Harding looks the part, but can't handle the light comic dialogue--clever lines that might have sounded sparkling from Myrna Loy or Irene Dunne fall flat out of her mouth. Unlike the '92 verison, this was not shot on location, but the sets work well enough. Short and sweet, and worth watching.

Monday, May 05, 2003


An odd and non-too-successful mix of "fish out of water" comedy and crime drama. Robert Montgomery plays a Chicago gangster who has gone more or less legit in the booze business. In the opening scene, he picks up Edward Arnold, just out of prison. Arnold was an honest lawyer who wound up in jail because Montgomery framed him seven years ago; he is understandably bitter, but Montgomery gives his a legit job as manager of his business. Arnold takes the job, but it seems clear that his thirst for revenge will still need an outlet someday. Reginald Owen arrives from England to let Montgomery know that he has inherited some British estates, and the title of earl. Mongomery and Arnold head to England where Arnold, using a forged power of attorney, proceeds to run the Chicago business into the ground. The betrayal leads to tragic consequences all around. It's an interesting plot, but the main reason it doesn't work is Montgomery who is irritating throughout, partly because he adopts a patently fake tough-guy voice and staccato laugh that grate on the viewer's nerves. His slow change in England from selfish to "noblesse oblige" is fun to watch, but the melodramatic twists at the end negate much of that fun. Edmund Gwenn is fine, as he always is, as the loyal butler who facilitates Montgomery's transformation. Arnold and Owen are also very good. The castle sets are nice. More character development and a better leading man would have helped this movie tremendously.

Saturday, May 03, 2003


This film, co-written by John Huston, has a fairly interesting set-up in its first 15 minutes but it's unable to follow through on that promise. The atmospheric opening, set in London on Chinese New Year's Eve, 1938, has Geraldine Fitzgerald collecting a couple of random strangers (Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre) from the street and bringing them back to her apartment. Legend has it that her statue of the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin will open its eyes at midnight on New Year's and grant the wish of three strangers, as long as they all wish for the same thing. All three are in need of money, so they put a horse race/lottery ticket in a drawer beneath the idol and wait for midnight. (The plot point of the ticket remained a bit vague to me, but they wind up with the possibility of splitting 30,000 pounds between them.) As the bells toll 12, a wind blows out Fitzgerald's candles, but she is sure she sees the goddess open her eyes. The rest of the movie follows the stories of the three: Greenstreet is a lawyer who has been embezzling from a rich widow (Rosalind Ivan) and tries to get her to marry him so he won't be found out; Lorre is a small time crook who was tricked (by Robert Shayne) into participating in a robbery which ends in murder; Fitzgerald wants financial independence, hoping to win back her estranged husband (Alan Napier) who is "living in sin" with Marjorie Riorden because Fitzgerald won't give him a divorce--the situation with Napier and Riorden is surprisingly clear given that this is a mainstream Code movie of the 40's.

The moody, almost supernatural tone of the opening gives way to a somber, almost noirish feel, but because none of the three are particularly likeable, none of the stories is all that compelling. Ultimately Lorre, with some help from sweet kid Joan Lorring (who resembles Vivien Leigh), is cleared of charges stemming from the murder, but by the time the three meet again to find out if the ticket is a winner, Greenstreet and Fitzgerald's situations will take turns for the worse. The ending, at least as far as the money goes, is reminiscent of Huston's TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. John Alvin plays a Bob Cratchit-like clerk to Greenstreet; Arthur Shields (Barry Fitzgerald's brother) is a prosecuting attorney. One scene of Lorre in jail has him playing a phonograph record of one of my favorite songs, "I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls." Word has it that Bogart and Mary Astor were originally lined up to play the Lorre and Fitzgerald characters, and they might have been able to give the movie the spark it's missing. Although I like Lorre, as a romantic lead he doesn't quite cut it here.

Friday, May 02, 2003


Mongram Pictures makes hash of Wilkie Collins' great Victorian detective novel, which I read last year. The copy I saw of this film ran roughly ten minutes less than the recorded running time that's given in most film reference books, but even allowing for that, there are still loopholes and unexplained plot points galore. It's an early work from "Poverty Row" and everything about it reeks low-low budget: shoddy sets, weak writing, static cinematography, inconsistent acting. The plot centers around a stolen and cursed gem from India that winds up in England and puts a bunch of people in an old dark house in harm's way. David Manners, who was in a couple of Universal horror films in the 30's, plays possibly the most passive hero in movie history (partly due to the way the character was written in the novel); Phyllis Barry is OK as the heroine; Gustav von Seyffertitz, who I remember from THE BAT WHISPERS, is the over-the-top bad guy. Elspeth Dudgeon is fine as the housekeeper (who in the novel was a male). The element of "mysterious India" is greatly diminished from the book, distilled here into one red herring character, played by John Davidson (most assuredly NOT the well-known TV host). A considerable disappointment, and despite the bad shape of the print, probably not a film worth going through a lot of trouble to restore.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

QUEEN BEE (1955)

A Joan Crawford camp fest, and perhaps the inspiration for Faye Dunaway's performance as Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. With big shoulders, flowing gowns, and eyebrows that could cut glass, Crawford plays a restless, scheming, man-hungry Southern belle gone to seed; she feels her power over friends and relatives slipping away and she is desperate to hang onto as much as she can. The plot feels like underdone Tennessee Williams or dumbed-down Faulkner. We see the bizarre, dysfunctional family situation through the eyes of a young cousin (Lucy Marlow) who has come for an indefinite stay at the Crawford family mansion. Barry Sullivan is Crawford's constantly drunk husband and Betsy Palmer is Sullivan's sister, who is planning to marry John Ireland, who it turns out was once a lover of Crawford's. Marlow falls for Sullivan (I have no idea what she sees in him), and in order for them to have a happy ending, artificially melodramatic tragedy has to strike everyone else. It's a 50's movie, so it's overblown and stiffly acted and drably shot, but some of Crawford's scenes are campily fun, even when some of the plot twists make no sense (including the fate of Palmer's character). For me, Ireland was the only sympathetic character; the fact that Marlow winds up happy at the end didn't make *me* happy. Fay Wray has a small role as an older woman who has suffered at Crawford's hands in the past. She has a couple of scenes and vanishes, perhaps aware that she couldn't compete with Crawford and her wardrobe. High in camp value, but not as fun as I'd hoped.