Sunday, August 31, 2003

Two Pre-Code "Complicated Women" Movies

Joan Blondell is a poor girl screwed over by the world: she quits her job when the boss harasses her, and her sick mother dies when Blondell can't pay for her medical costs. She works her way up through the rackets, becoming a gangster's moll and eventually taking over as head of illegal activities in the city. She's sitting pretty, but without the man she loves (Chester Morris); through a misunderstanding, she thinks he ratted her out to the cops and she has him set up for a kill. She finds out the truth and tries to stop the hit. Blondell's character is interesting in that she feels totally justified turning to crime to get back at a society that has done her no favors. At the same time, she steadfastly guards her "purity" and comes off as a good girl, despite her involvement in crime. Morris is hot but his character is passive and ineffective--Blondell has to goad him into getting ahead, then drives him out when she finds out he's marrying someone else. Also with Allen Jenkins and Claire Dodd, and a Japanese actress named Toshia Mori in a unstereotyped part. Sterling Holloway has a fun bit as a streetwise taxi driver--maybe the only time he's ever played a character who could be called streetwise.

Loretta Young is a secretary in love with Regis Toomey, a business hotshot (in sales, I think). They spend hours a day making out, or so it's implied. The big boss decides that business would be improved if the secretaries started showing visiting customers a good time in the evening. Young doesn't want to get involved, but as a favor to Toomey, she agrees to do it one time with the handsome Lyle Talbot. He misreads her intentions but she escapes with her virtue intact and Talbot is properly chastised. He falls for her just as she discovers that Toomey is flirting with an office floozy. There are further complications, but suffice to say that in the rushed conclusion typical of many short 30's movies, Young and Talbot work things out. As other reviewers have noted, it isn't really a happy ending since we get the sense that she is settling for the lesser of two evils in choosing Talbot over Toomey (or maybe she's just choosing purely based on looks!). Busby Berkeley directed, and one early scene in a nightclub shows a bit of the flair he would bring to musicals a little later in the decade.

Saturday, August 30, 2003


A dramatization of the liberation of Paris during WWII with an all-star international cast (mostly French). The non-fiction book that the film is based on is presented somewhat like an oral history as we follow dozens of people, Allies and Germans, through the days of liberation in August of 1944. The movie doesn't do a very good job of setting up the context of the events. I'm pretty sure I would frequently have been at sea if I hadn't just read the book (which is the reason I rented the movie). The closest thing the movie has to a cental character is the Nazi officer (General von Choltitz, played by Gert Frobe, better known as Goldfinger) who is put in charge of defending Paris after the Normandy invasion; if he cannot hold the city against the inevitable attack by the Allies, Hitler orders him to destroy it. Frobe does a nice job as the confused man who wants to follow orders but can't bring himself to be responsible for the destruction of such a beautiful city--it's made clear in the book but not in the film that Choltitz believed that Hitler had become an ineffective leader and a raving madman. Another problem for the Germans (and to some degree, the Allies) is the Resistance, or more precisely the various Resistance groups that are squabbling about the timing for an uprising in Paris. Pierre Vaneck is the Resistance representative who goes through enemy lines to make contact with the Allies (Kirk Douglas is General Patton). Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo play other Resistance fighters; Charles Boyer is a doctor who helps Vaneck on his mission; Orson Welles is a Swiss diplomat.

Others in the large cast (mostly with only a few minutes of screen time) are Simone Signoret, Anthony Perkins, Glenn Ford, Yves Montand, and Leslie Caron. There are some nicely surreal moments, one with a fancy hotel lobby in flames, and another with Resistance fighters carrying on a fierce battle from an old lady's apartment while she causally sips tea. The movie is in black & white, which allows smooth integration of actual footage of the street fighting and celebrating that accompanied the city's liberation, though the last shot (an aerial view of present-day Paris) suddenly turns to color. At three hours, the lack of a central hero works against the cohesion of the various plot elements. Vaneck, Delon and Belmondo (all quite handsome) get a fair amount of attention, but we never get to know them as characters and they mostly vanish in the last hour. This is infamous for being a badly dubbed film--it's in English and it seems like almost all the dialogue, even that of the American actors, is post-dubbed. It does hurt the film a bit, but I got used to it. Recommended, especially if you're already a war buff, though be warned that this is not a traditional war film with a lot of bloody battle scenes.

Friday, August 29, 2003


The best Falcon film I've seen yet (I've also seen THE FALCON IN HOLLYWOOD and THE FALCON'S ALIBI), perhaps partly because it's based on a Raymond Chandler novel, "Farewell My Lovely." George Sanders gets tangled up in a murder at a nightclub, Club 13; the manager is killed by ex-con (and ex-wrestler) Ward Bond, and Sanders' sidekick (Allen Jenkins) is forced into driving the getaway car. Sanders' fiancee is out of town and a lovely rookie reporter (Lynn Bari) accompanies him as he investigates. It turns out that Bond is searching for a mysterious damsel named Velma, who done him wrong. Other fishy characters include a fey rich guy (Hans Conreid), a psychic (Turhan Bey), and a beautiful blonde (Helen Gilbert). The supporting cast includes James Gleason as a cop and Anne Revere as a scared underling. Most of the cast members only get one good scene before getting bumped off. Bond comes off a bit like the Frankenstein monster, threatening to break people's necks with his bare hands. The plot is more coherent than the average B-mystery, fairly easy to follow until the end, and the fates of the characters are satisfying. There is quite a bit of humor, with Jenkins referring several times to "corpus delicious," and Sanders telling someone that he never drinks before sunset, but "after that, the deluge." At 65 minutes, it clips along nicely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003


This is the New York City version of HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN, a wartime revue set at a USO club for soldiers. As with the Hollywood version, this one has a thin plot line involving a forbidden romance and features stars acting like "normal" folks as they volunteer at the club. As far as the story goes, Lon McAllister is California, a naive boy looking for his first kiss; Sunset Carson is Tex who falls for a li'l old Southern gal; William Terry is Dakota, who has sworn off women for the duration, but who winds up involved with the icy Cheryl Walker. He also helps his buddy Jersey (Fred Brady) write love letters to his gal. Marjorie Riordan is sweet on California and, as a hostess at the club, isn't supposed to get involved with the men, but she eventually gives California his kiss, if a rather anti-climactic one. The somewhat tedious story is broken up with lots of songs: Peggy Lee croons "Why Don't You Do Right," the song made famous 40 years later by Jessica Rabbit; Ethel Merman belts out lustily about marching through Berlin; Gracie Fields sings about killing Japs, then performs "The Lord's Prayer." There are big band numbers by Count Basie, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman, and Kay Kyser. George Jessel does a vaudeville routine set in a phone booth; Katherine Cornell plays Juliet to a GI's Romeo. Other celebs who pop in include Edgar Bergen, Merle Oberon, Gypsy Rose Lee, Judith Anderson and Talullah Bankhead. Katharine Hepburn, playing herself in a short bit at the end, comes off just like one of her film characters. As one might expect, the comics and musicians are fine, but the filmmakers didn't quite know what to do with the actors (particularly those like Cornell, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne who didn't do many movies), and they seem a bit at sea. The movie is good for one go-around, but it's not a keeper.

Sunday, August 24, 2003


One of the few W. C. Fields movies I've seen where the plot actually counts for something, at least for a while. Fields plays Sam Bisbee, a dreamer who spends most of his time coming up with offbeat inventions in his back room, most notably a chair that knocks out the person who sits in it. His most promising invention is a puncture-proof tire. His sweet daughter (Joan Marsh) wants to marry a boy (Buster Crabbe) from a high society family, but the boy's mother (Kathleen Howard) obejcts strongly to Marsh's background, especially her somewhat disreputable and occasionally drunken father. Fields hopes that the sale of his tire to a tire company will impress Crabbe's mother and facilitate the marriage, but the demonstration goes awry. On the train home, Fields thinks about suicide, but then mistakenly believes that a female passenger (Adrienne Ames) is about to take poison and so he "saves" her. Fields actually *acts* here, fleshing out his character in a way that he usually didn't bother with in his later movies. It turns out that Ames is a princess touring America ; charmed by Field's chivalry, she visits him at home (leading to rumors of an affair) and winds up boosting his reputation and helping him sell his invention. The plot stops dead in the last 10 minutes as Fields does his famous slapstick gold routine (culled from an earlier short film); I found the bit to be rather tedious but it doesn't really hurt the movie. Other reviewers have commented that we see a "kinder & gentler" Fields in this film, which is mostly true, but it still ranks with his best. The opening, where he comes home drunk, is one of his best routines ever.

Friday, August 22, 2003

STAR! (1968)

I avoided watching this notorious flop musical, one of a string of big disasters from the late 60's that killed off the musical genre for decades, until I could see it letterboxed. It turns out that it's not a bad movie at all; it's quite watchable with good if not overly imaginative production numbers and some fine performances, though Julie Andrews never fully inhabits the role of Gertrude Lawrence, a British star of stage and screen. The film had the misfortune to be released in the same season as Barbra Streisand's FUNNY GIRL, about American Fanny Brice; both are long movies about past stars of the musical stage and both are constructed as long-view stories of the rise of their careers and the highs and lows of their love lives. Unlike the Streisand film, STAR! confines its songs to the stage and uses mostly period music (some of it by Noel Coward, a real-life friend of Lawrence's, and played by Daniel Massey in the film). However, few of the songs are memorable--in fact, the only one I can recall a few days after watching the movie is George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me."

The movie begins a bit like CITIZEN KANE, as we watch a newsreel version of the life of Gertrude Lawrence. It turns out that Lawrence herself (Andrews) is watching the film and she stops at several points to comment on the truth behind the footage. We see her get her start in a music hall, in a mediocre act with her parents which provides an amusing opening number. She manages to forge ahead largely through sheer force of will; her life-long friendship with Noel Coward helps her career and we see her become a genuine star even as she keeps messing up her romantic relationships with a variety of men including John Collin as a helpful stage manager who becomes her first husband, Michael Craig as a titled diplomat, Robert Reed as an American actor, and Richard Crenna as a financier and would-be theatrical producer. Jenny Agutter plays her daughter is who around for a few minutes just so we can see that she is loved but neglected by her mother. In addition to guilt over her failed relationship with Agutter, we also see Andrews weather a breakdown (mostly physical, it seems) and near-bankruptcy before she triumphs for good at the end. There is a particularly amusing moment when we see Andrews and Massey act out a racy scene from Coward's play "Private Lives" for the Lord Chamberlain (the official state censor), but the happy and sad times aren't always effectively presented. Anthony Eisley has about one minute of screen time as a quickly forgotten beau, and Jock Livingston plays the critic Alexander Woolcott, who calls Lawrence "Goddess." Robert Reed, whom I mostly know as Mike Brady, is surprisingly good here and it seems a shame that TV robbed him of a broader career in movies. Not a movie you have to seek out, but not nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003


An interesting melodrama with mixed messages about love, loyalty, and prejudice. Set during WWI, the story centers on Barbara Stanwyck, a New England blueblood; when we first see her, she is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her beau, Ralph Bellamy, from overseas. But when Bellamy arrives, he has a German pal, Otto Kruger, in tow and Stanwyck winds up smitten with Kruger, to the consternation of her family (including brother Frank Albertson and grandmother Laura Hope Crews). Bellamy steps aside and Stanwyck marries Kruger, who becomes a U. S. citizen and is slowly accepted by her family. However, the sinking of the Lusitania triggers a wave an anti-German sentiment; despite Kruger's best attempts to show how American he has become, the townspeople shut him out and he loses his teaching position at the local college. After their young son dies (of the flu, I think), Kruger goes back to Germany; Stanwyck divorces him and goes to Europe as a volunteer nurse. She meets up by accident with Kruger and realizes he is spying on American troops. Torn between her remaining feelings for Kruger and loyalty for her country (especially since her brother is at the front), she spends one last night with Kruger and then takes drastic measures to solve her problem (a solution that would not have been possible under the Hayes code a year later).

The movie's handling of the issue of wartime prejudices must have seemed particularly apt just a few years later as Hitler began his European invasions. Even now, after the events of September 11, 2001, the message is applicable (and given human nature, may never go out of date). Kruger is presented initally as a good man; it is the overwhelming nature of the town's prejuidce against him that drives him to his acts of betrayal. I had a problem with the "love at first sight" aspect of Stanwyck's first meeting with Kruger--he just isn't portrayed as all that charming or dashing (poor Ralph Bellamy never seems to have much luck with the leading ladies!). Ruth Donnelly is underused as the family maid; Clara Blandick and Elizabeth Patterson are also in the cast. A quote from the film might be seen as its message:--"Folks can't get away from what's bred in their blood and bones"--but the film ultimately takes a view that is more complicated and interesting than that.

Monday, August 18, 2003


Joan Crawford made two movies with this title; plotwise, they have nothing to do with each other--I reviewed the 1947 film in Spetember 2002. This one is an interesting pre-Code melodrama, written by Lenore Coffee, which centers on the idea of woman as economic commodity. Crawford is a factory worker who yearns for a better life. Nice guy Wallace Ford wants to marry her, but she's not ready to settle down so she heads for the big city. In record time, on a train to the city, she meets a rich man (Skeets Gallagher) whom she thinks will be her sugar daddy, but when she shows up at this apartment, he sends her away. Her disappointment is short lived, however, as rich lawyer Clark Gable (much younger and handsomer than Gallagher) is around to step in. For years, she is his mistress, kept in luxury, but he refuses to marry her for reasons involving a previous marriage (and divorce) and the potential for scandal when he decides to run for political office. Once he's in place to run for governor, his advisors suggest that he dump Crawford. As it happens, old flame Ford comes back into the picture around this time and misunderstandings and betrayals engulf all three, leaving Crawford to have to make a decision about doing the right thing (and what that right thing might be). The moral complexities here are nicely presented, in several shades of gray. Crawford wants things for herself, is ambitious, and doesn't mind getting ahead however she can, but old double standards get in her way. A well acted film with interesting social commentary that would not have been possible under the Hayes Code.

Saturday, August 16, 2003


This Fritz Lang thriller has many trappings of film noir (although with a female lead) but despite a strong opening, it's not as moody or intense as it should be, turning into more ordinary melodrama along the way. Anne Baxter gets dumped, via mail, by her boyfriend in Korea. Depressed, she gets a phone call from artist Raymond Burr, who thinks he's talking to her roommate (Ann Sothern). Baxter meets Burr for a date, gets quite drunk, and winds up at his place. He gets too forceful with her, she defends herself with a poker, then passes out. The next morning, Burr is dead and Baxter assumes she killed him. Slowly, a web of circumstantial evidence closes in around her (with George Reeves as a cop putting the clues together) and she decides to trust Richard Conte, a reporter who promises to clear her name. The paranoid atmosphere is well done, with lots of scenes of phones and evesdropping (Baxter & Sothern are telephone operators). It's perhaps a little too clear to us that Baxter is innocent, though there is some nice misdirection involving Sothern's character. Ultimately, the identity of the killer (a minor, left-field character) is unimportant; the relationship between Baxter and Conte is the center of the last half of the film. Jeff Donnell is the third roommate and Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title song at the title cafe (which is otherwise not terribly important to the plot). Baxter is good, as is Sothern, who looks much younger than her years. OK, but not terribly compelling.

Friday, August 15, 2003


A trifle, occasionally irritating but worth watching for a few of my favorite supporting actors. I have to imagine that even in 1940, this plot was a bit far-fetched for people's tastes. Frank Morgan plays a mild-mannered pet store owner in a small town; his family loves him, but his wife (Billie Burke) wishes he were a bit more ambitious. Through a needlessly complicated plot machination involving a plan to visit a rich school pal who now lives in Australia, Morgan heads off for New York City but never makes it to the liner for Australia, winding up instead in jail for 30 days on a "drunk and disorderly" charge. Meanwhile, the liner sinks and Morgan is presumed dead. The family gets a good chunk of insurance money and sells the pet store; though they genuinely miss Morgan, they are in much better financial shape than ever. Morgan eventually returns, scaring the Dickens out of everyone, and soon they all realize that, in order to avoid a fraud charge, Morgan must remain "dead," relegated to living in the attic. Tiring of this plan fairly quickly, Morgan lets a tyrannical streak show, terrorizing the family with his demands and soon everyone is looking for a way out. And that's only about two-thirds of the plot! Ann Rutherford is the daughter, who falls for John Shelton, a snobbish NYC bandleader who disses everyone when he's in town for a gig, but who redeems himself by helping Morgan out while he's in the Big Apple. Reginald Owen, playing against type, is a band member who plays a crucial role in a real estate scam the family runs against shiftless Donald Meek. Frank Albertson and Nat Pendleton are also in the cast. Amusing in spots; I like Morgan but he's awfully hammy here. Despite a few plot loopholes, the scam is nicely pulled off and provides a satisfying ending.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003


I agree with a couple of IMDb reviewers who think that this is actually a more interesting movie that the similarly themed THE THIRD MAN. Both are somewhat moody stories of post-war intrigue; the Carol Reed movie may have more depth, but this is much more fun to watch, and almost as effective. On a train from Paris to Frankfurt, a German who is supposed to be an important figure in the reconstruction of post-war Germany is assassinated, only it turns out that the killers got the decoy. The real diplomat (Paul Lukas) is temporarily safe, but later he is kidnapped and his secretary (Merle Oberon) gets a multinational group of passengers to help her and the Army search for him. The group includes Robert Ryan as the resourceful American, Robert Coote as the Brit, and Roman Toporov as the Russian (the one who is the most conflicted about joining in). Location shooting in Berlin and the ruins of Frankfurt add to the film's atmosphere. The opening section of the movie has too much spoken narration as exposition, but this gets better as the movie goes on. The scenes on the train are well shot; the main characters are all introduced as we see them enter their compartments through the windows. The group comes off a bit like a bunch of Hardy Boys, which is meant as a compliment here. There are good action scenes throughout, especially toward the end. There are also some nice Hitchcockian moments, one with a mind reader and a clown in a sinister nightclub, and one near the end as we see a character being strangled through a reflection in a train window as Ryan and Oberon, blithely unaware, continue chatting. Ultimately, Lukas's mission is successful, although we are left with some pessimism about the possibility of lasting peace. Jacques Tourneur directs with his usual understated flair. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003


I must admit that the main reason I watched this was because it has Chester Morris in a small role (and his last role--he died, an apparent suicide, just before the film was released), but the real reason to appreciate this movie is that it is proof that James Earl Jones once had a full-blooded acting career; it seems that Hollywood couldn't quite figure out how to best use him until they discovered his voice-over talent. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this is a fictionalized version of the life of boxer Jack Johnson (here named Jack Jefferson), the first black heavyweight champion. A brash, confident person who is uncomfortable being held up as a token figure standing in for his entire race, he takes a devil-may-care attitude toward living his life to its fullest in the public spotlight. When he flaunts his white girlfriend (Jane Alexander), the powers that be, in both the sport and the law, have a reason to try to take him down. He is arrested (because miscegenation laws prohibit him from taking Alexander across state laws) but escapes the country before he can be imprisoned. He keeps his boxing career going for a time, but eventually things start to fall apart. He drives Alexander away--I think he believes he does it for her own good, but it's still a startlingly cruel act--and she kills herself, which takes much of his spark away from him, leading to a sad but somewhat hopeful ending. For a boxing movie, there are very few scenes of boxing until the final bout in Havana. Knowing Jones mostly as the voice of Darth Vader, or in small roles in movies like FIELD OF DREAMS, I was stunned at how good he is here. He makes his complex character fierce but thoughtful and we are sympathetic with him throughout. Alexander is almost as good in her first movie role--both of them were rightfully nominated for Oscars. Chester Morris is a big-shot, old-time boxing promoter who actually seems a bit torn about his own role in Jones' downfall; other cast members include Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards, and Robert Webber, but this is largely a two-person show.

Saturday, August 09, 2003


An odd little melodrama that might have been more interesting had it been done in the pre-Code years and with a different lead actress. Set, I think, in Florida, or at any rate, near a beach community, Ginger Rogers plays a young girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her mother (Marjorie Rambeau, nominated for a supporting actress Oscar) is married to a broken-down, alcoholic scholar without a job (Miles Mander), but she apparently worked in the past (and perhaps in the present) as a prostitute, as did Rogers' grandmother (Queenie Vassar). Rambeau must feel that whoring is in the blood, because we get hints that she is thinking of pimping for her own daughter--though being a film made under the Production Code, this is all rather oblique. Rogers, fresh-faced and a bit tomboyish, meets up with handsome Joel McCrea who works in a beachfront diner and the two hit it off. They get married, which allows Rogers to think she'll be able to escape her tawdry family situation. She gets a job at the diner (Henry Travers is the good-hearted boss) and there is a nice scene of Rogers and McCrea trading "Cheers"-like quips with the clientale. But soon, McCrea finds out about her background and, thinking he's been played for a fool, leaves her. After a few melodramatic plot developments, they wind up together at the end. Joan Carroll, the middle daughter in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, is Rogers' kid sister; Charles Lane is a rich friend/client of Rambeau's. The mean grandmother is the most interesting character and Vassar is good in the role; she should have had more screen time, and should also have had a stronger comeuppance for all her mischief, since she is the one who deliberately lies to McCrea and causes him to leave Rogers. The beach and sea settings are nicely detailed and realistic. Rogers, who was almost 30, is stuck playing a part way too young for her, which defuses the situation a bit--it would have been much more effective for an actress in her early 20's to play the part.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003


There was much potential here for an interesting movie, but the B-level budget and overriding propaganda concerns sort of sink the material. The film's frame is a car-pool ride by six people to their war manufacturing job. The co-workers have never really gotten to know each other very well, and the mild-mannered driver admits to the rest that, in conversations with his wife, he has made up backgrounds for all the other five. As the driver tells each person what he imagines about him or her, we get a fleshed-out interior monologue about how each one came to doing war work. The first and best story has Margo as a French nightclub singer and resistance fighter whose small cell is betrayed; her handsome lover (Bruce Edwards) and the rest are executed, but she gets away and makes it to America. The others: Robert Ryan is a race car driver who can't join the Air Corps with his buddies because of injuries he sustained in a crash; John Carradine is a hobo who is moved by a patriotic speech (by judge Harry Davenport) to find gainful employment; Amelita Ward is a former beauty queen whose show biz dreams amount to nothing; James Bell is a prison wardern who has to execute his own brother. Most of the individual stories are interesting but suffer from underdevelopment (especially Bell's with its noirish look and its unexplored psychological content). One of the best scenes is a direct steal from CASABLANCA: Margo manages to break into a radio speech by Hitler to lead her fellow citizens in a sing-along of the Marsellaise.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

LURED (1947)

Interesting mystery directed by Douglas Sirk, better known for his glossy soap-opera melodramas of the 50's. Despite some occasional film noir tone, this is a fairly traditional detective story set in the present, but with an Edwardian feel. Someone is kidnapping and apparently killing young women in London, women he's met through the personals ads, then sending poems (which quote from Baudelaire) to Scotland Yard. The latest woman to vanish is a friend of dance hall girl Lucille Ball, an American stranded in England when her show flops, and she volunteers to help the police catch the killer by answering suspicious ads. There are any number of suspects: Boris Karloff as a nutty dress designer; George Sanders as a playboy nightclub owner who romances Ball; Cedric Hardwicke as Sanders' staid business partner; and Joseph Calleia as the head of a white slavery ring. A strong supporting cast includes Charles Coburn, Alan Napier, and Alan Mowbray. Most notable is George Zucco as a Scotland Yard man who acts as bodyguard to Ball. Uusally Zucco plays a creep or a villian, but here he is downright heroic and quite charming. Ball is serviceable throughout, but her supporting cast outshines her. There is nice work with shadows and, though it displays little of the visual flair of Sirk's later films (like ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS), the sets are impressive. Quite a good thriller, highly recommended.

Monday, August 04, 2003


THE DARK MIRROR (1946)--This would seem to be an early entry in the psychological thriller genre that thrived after WWII; it also has a film noir atmosphere, though not many other trappings of that kind of movie. A man is murdered and a woman is seen leaving the scene. The problem is that the suspect who matches the description of the woman is Olivia De Havilland, who plays identical twins: Ruth, who seems sweet and mild, and Terry, a little on the bitchy and edgy side. De Havilland does a nice job distinguishing subtly between the two, so much so that I had some trouble keeping track of which twin was which (an intentional problem, I imagine). It develops that one of the sisters is trying to "gaslight" the other, which throws a monkey wrench into the whole situation. Thomas Mitchell is the investigating cop and Lew Ayres is a psychiatrist who does some investigating of his own and winds up falling for Ruth. The picture is drably shot, but the twin effects are good, and the story builds to an exciting climax.

BACKGROUND TO DANGER (1943)--A bland attempt to produce another CASABLANCA without Bogart. George Raft, who had once been in the running for the part of Rick Blaine, plays an American on a train to Turkey during WWII. He gets involved with a shady woman (Osa Massen) who is trying to pass secret plans along to someone; she is killed and Raft winds up with the plans, a German forgery that claims that Russia is about to invade neutral Turkey. The Nazis, led by Sidney Greenstreet, want to leak the plans to the press to force Turkey to take up with the Germans. Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall are also trying to get their hands on the documents, but Raft can't tell what their intentions are. Turhan Bey has a thankless role as a protector of Raft's who winds up dead. Raft himself is deadly dull, but he does get to do his somewhat famous coin-flipping routine. Lorre has a buzz cut which suits him and makes him less slimy than usual. For me, the high point of all these tedious proceedings was watching Greenstreet get to do one of his trademarked belly laughs.

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931)--A Lubitsch operetta, fluffy but of little consequence. Maurice Chevalier plays a soldier who has the hots for violinist Claudette Colbert, but while he's flirting with her one day, a visiting princess (Miriam Hopkins) assumes his winks are meant for her. To save face and avoid a diplomatic scandal, he woos and marries the princess. She's rather plain and inexperienced in the ways of love, so Colbert ends up teaching her how to sex up her relationship. Though Colbert is more likeable, conventional morality wins out; Chevalier and Hopkins wind up happy together, and Colbert gracefully bows out. There are some nice Lubitsch touches, but overall not a terribly memorable film (bear in mind that I'm not a Chevalier fan, though I do usually like Lubitsch and Colbert). There is a very funny breakfast song with a line about invading the marmalade. The song where Colbert gives advice to Hopkins, "Spice Up Your Lingerie," is also fun. Charles Ruggles is in the cast, in a too-small role.

Sunday, August 03, 2003


The last of my recent Bob Hope viewings is also the least of them. This is a particularly dippy musical variety movie; the genre seemed to be dying out at the time and this film is evidence of why. The threadbare plot centers around the race of two ocean liners from America to Europe. One of the ships has an experimental supplementary power source known as "radio power," an invention of hunky Leif Erickson. W. C. Fields plays the nutty twin brother of the head of one of the ocean liner companies; because he is such a klutz, he is sent to travel on the rival ship (arriving from the air in a bizarre winged scooter) in hopes that he will hinder its voyage, but he mistakenly winds up on his own company's liner. The only other narrative thread involves Bob Hope as a radio MC who is running from a gaggle of ex-wives who want him to pay up on his alimony. His current suitor, Dorothy Lamour, winds up attracted to Erickson, and one of Hope's exes, Shirley Ross, falls back in love with him, largely via their rendition of Hope's signature song, "Thanks for the Memory." Martha Raye is along for the ride, shattering mirrors just by looking at them--it actually is one of the funnier gags in the film. The rest of the cast consists of mostly forgettable musical specialty acts. The last number is a long history of the waltz that is suitably spectacular in looks but does drag on. There is a silly cartoon sequence set to music by Shep Fields and his Rippling Rhythm Orchestra, and W. C. Fields (I assume no relation to Shep) gets off a few good lines like this one: Fields: "I feel like a June bride!" Straight man: "How does a June bride feel?" Fields: "I wonder, I wonder..." The movie is not especially memorable--if you want a more consistenly funny variety film, check out STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM--but "Thanks for the Memory" really is, with Hope even seeming to get in an improvised chuckle or two.