Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Re-Introducing Myself

My "mission" with my blog is primarily to write reviews of classic-era movies that I see on DVD, tape, or cable (mostly Turner Classic Movies or Fox Movie Channel). I find it difficult to be objective or rationally critical about old movies which I have already seen and loved, so that's why I usually do not review more well-known classics like CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. At this point in my movie-watching life, I am actively searching out less well-known movies, or movies that are hard to come by, or films about which it is difficult to find critical information in movie reference guides. My favorite genres are mystery, film noir, musical, horror, and WWII films (actually made during the war rather than made later but set during wartime). I also enjoy B-films of the 30's and 40's, and pre-Code movies (from 1930-1934, before censorious Production Code restrictions became mandatory). Silent movies are not my cup of tea, but I will watch one occasionally. I avoid westerns and, frankly, 50's movies in general; after WWII, Hollywood went into a creative decline that didn't end until the mid-60's. My cut-off date for "classic era" is 1969, but I may begin violating that rule this year, and sometimes briefly mention current movies that I enjoy. I will also start noting whether I saw the movie being reviewed on cable, video, or in a theater (I'm lucky that here in Columbus, Ohio, we have a theater downtown that shows classic movies all summer long, and also a university that occasionally presents older films). I enjoy the feedback I get and continue to encourage it; check my sidebar to contact me. I am also going to try to start noting in my blog when certain favorites of mine will be showing on TCM or FMC. And I'll start by noting that a good Fritz Lang thriller, MINISTRY OF FEAR, will be on TCM Saturday, Jan 3, at 8 a.m. (all times Eastern)

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

2003: My Year in Movies--Part Two

Of the 180 or so classic-era movies I saw for the first time and reviewed on my blog in the past year, here are my least favorite:

ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (1938): Not an awful movie, just very disappointing. All the weaknesses of the Fox musicals are writ large here: a tediously predictable story, unexciting production numbers, excessive length, and Alice Faye. Good Irving Berlin songs and a nice supporting performance by Ethel Merman, but not much fun.

FIRST LADY (1937): My tolerance for Kay Francis depends on her surroundings. Here, she has some good material (by George S. Kauffman) but is directed badly and supported by a bland cast. A total washout.

HITTING A NEW HIGH (1937): Actually, a new low among musicals. Lily Pons couldn't act, Jack Oakie couldn't stop overacting, and the usually reliable Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore can't save it. Clever plot, bad execution all around.

LADY SCARFACE (1941): Judith Anderson is completely wasted in a supporting role of little consequence, even though she plays the title character. Sub-par crime movie with boring leads.

THE LADY TAKES A SAILOR (1949): Years after the screwball comedy genre had peaked came this tired retread. I like the stars, Jane Wyman and Dennis Morgan, but clearly their hearts weren't in this ridiculous comedy with few laughs.

THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931): An Ernst Lubitsch comic operatta that is well made, I suppose, but not very light on its feet, despite some good work by Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Maurice Chevalier's presence is definitely not a plus in my book. Boring, which this kind of whimsy should never be.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1935): Drab, draggy, depressing, despite two actors I usually like, Paul Lukas and Walter Abel. Abel is badly miscast as D'Artagnan. Avoid at all costs. Thankfully, Turner Classic Movies rarely shows it.

UNDERCURRENT (1946): A glossy noirish soap opera from MGM, proving that "glossy"and "noir" really don't belong in the same phrase. Not terrible, but not up to the usual standards of MGM, director Vincente Minelli, or star Katharine Hepburn.

Some highlights of the year:
I discovered Harold Lloyd, thanks to TCM. THE FRESHMAN was very funny, THE CAT'S PAW a little less so but unique and interesting. I have a couple more on tape to watch soon. I hope Lloyd's daughter will allow his films to be released on DVD sooner rather than later. I also saw Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN on the big screen with live organ accompaniment, which was great fun.

I got Fox Movie Channel, which helps offset the loss of American Movie Classics, which has gone so far downhill that I don't even check their schedule anymore. Thanks to Fox, I saw movies with Will Rogers, Betty Grable, and Don Ameche; some restored Charlie Chan movies; and the wonderful CHANDU. My only complaint: they don't show enough 30's and 40's movies, and they repeat too much. It seemed like Fox executives thought ACE ELI AND RODGER OF THE SKIES was the gem in their crown.

There were some excellent DVD's out this year: A superb restoration of the early Karloff horror film THE GHOUL, a nice line of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (together and separately) films from Universal (I especially appreciated the double bills), Kino's excellent disc of METROPOLIS, Fox's Studio Classics line with great prints of ALL ABOUT EVE, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, and SUNRISE, and Warner's dazzling package of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. On the other hand, Columbia put out mediocre prints of THE AWFUL TRUTH and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and overcharged for THE DEVIL COMMANDS, charging 25 bucks for an hour-long film that looks only OK. Even the usually reliable Criterion made a mistake with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER: a complete and good looking print, but plagued with annoying flickering for much of its running time.

My favorite recent movies, seen in theaters or on DVD: THE HOURS, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (Catharine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney must be among the most beautiful people on the planet), AMERICAN SPLENDOR, SPIRITED AWAY, CHICAGO, A MIGHTY WIND, THE ITALIAN JOB, and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (a movie I had avoided but my friends made me watch). ELF was sweet and one of the best Christmas movies in many years. 28 DAYS LATER and LOST IN TRANSLATION were worth seeing but not as wonderful as the critics seemed to think. SWIMMING POOL and RUSSIAN ARK were interesting but disappointing. THE TRANSPORTER and CABIN FEVER were pretty bad. THE RECRUIT was worth watching only for the steamy Colin Farrell, who I'm still not convinced will be a great actor. And my personal favorite celebrity crush Jeremy Piven had a small but nice role in RUNAWAY JURY (and did commentary on the DVD of the otherwise wretched PCU).

Monday, December 29, 2003

2003: My Year in Movies--Part One

Of the 180 or so classic-era movies I saw for the first time and reviewed on my blog in the past year, here are my favorites, with year of release and the month of my review:

CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR (1950/Sept): TV quiz show spoof that has become newly relevant lately. Ronald Colman is good, but Vincent Price steals the movie with a unexpectedly delightful supporing performance. (On DVD)

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932/Oct): Wonderful fantasy/adventure fun with Chandu trying to stop a super-villain from using his death ray to bring the world to its knees. Edmund Lowe as the lead hero is bland, but Bela Lugosi is excellent as the scenery-chewing bad guy. Paced and structured like a movie serial, but over in under 90 minutes. Fun special effects as well, much better than in any serial I've seen. (Fox Movie Channel)

DANCING LADY (1933/March) and SADIE MCKEE (1934/Sept): Two movies that gave me a new appreciation for Joan Crawford. Long before her screen persona hardened into that of a soapy, campy Queen Bitch, here she's much lighter on her toes playing sympathetic young women looking for love. The lovely and quiet scene in SADIE when Gene Raymond sings "All I Do is Dream of You" to Crawford is one of my peak movie moments of the year. (Turner Classic Movies)

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933/Dec): An underrated WWI war drama (sort of an anti-war, anti-buddy movie) with powerful performances by Fredric March and Cary Grant. (On VHS)

FEMALE (1933/June): A great pre-Code comedy/drama with Ruth Chatterton as a powerful working woman who likes to dally with her handsome employees, but refuses to let them get too serious, until George Brent comes along. The ending is a letdown, but until the last 10 minutes, this is a fun "turnaround" plot; never under the Code could a woman who wasn't a prostitute be seen as enjoying brief sexual flings as Chatterton does. (TCM)

THE GLASS KEY (1942/Sept): Alan Ladd at his best in this early film noir, staying loyal to his boss (Brian Donlevy) while romancing Donlevy's girl (Veronica Lake) and getting the shit beaten out of him in an archetypal noir torture scene with William Bendix. Seeing this helped me make sense of the Coen Brothers noir pastiche, MILLER'S CROSSING. (TCM)

THE NAKED KISS (1964/Jan): I'm not exactly a Samuel Fuller fan, but seeing this after having seen SHOCK CORRIDOR last year has helped me appreciate him. Trashy melodrama about a hooker with a heart of gold who gets tangled up in some sordid small town affairs. Cheaply made but compelling, with a unique look and tone. (On DVD)

RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (1940/May): Light and frothy Bing Crosby musical, with a rare leading performance by Mary Martin. The show biz plot is a little silly, but perfectly serviceable, and almost every musical number is fun. (On DVD)

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934/Jan): Sink me! This is sort of a cheat since I'd seen this wonderful adventure film before, but this was my first DVD viewing. This may be Leslie Howard's best performance ever, and the Oscar Wilde-like dialogue is delightful. Raymond Massey makes a formidable villain. Grand fun. (On DVD)

Runner-ups include a few WWII films (WING AND A PRAYER, A YANK IN THE R.A.F, BERLIN EXPRESS), some good pre-Code films (POSSESSED, TORCH SINGER, MADAM SATAN, MAN WANTED, and JEWEL ROBBERY), and some fine noirish thrillers (LURED, WHEN STRANGERS MARRY, D.O.A., WOMAN ON THE BEACH). Also worth noting: THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, ROXIE HART, SCREAM OF FEAR, THE CONFORMIST, and OLIVER TWIST. I enjoyed discovering Eric Linden, a pre-Code juvenile lead, in BIG CITY BLUES and AGE OF CONSENT; a few more of his movies are on my list for 2004. I liked Will Rogers in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE and enjoyed seeing more of Chester Morris in THE GAY BRIDE, AERIAL GUNNER, and THE GREAT WHITE HOPE; an e-mail pal sent me a couple of Morris' Boston Blackie movies which I'll review soon.

I appreciated Bob Hope more than ever this year in STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM , THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and ROAD TO UTOPIA, but of all the celebrity deaths of the year, Katharine Hepburn's was the one that affected me the most; she made some bad movies like anyone else, but she gives three of the greatest acting performances of all time in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, THE LION IN WINTER, and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. I think Tracy Lord remains one of the most interesting and fleshed-out women in any movie. We'll never see another like her.

Saturday, December 27, 2003


This is the movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture instead of CITIZEN KANE. KANE was certainly robbed, but this is a fine movie in the sentimental family saga genre. Set around the turn of the century, it's about the childhood of Huw Morgan, played by 12-year-old Roddy McDowell, the youngest child in a family of Welsh coal miners. The episodic narrative (told in voiceover by Huw as an adult--Irving Pichel, whom we never see on camera) covers the gradual dispersal of the five other sons as the fortunes of the mines rise and fall. First, union agitation causes a rift between the boys and their father (Donald Crisp). Later, two sons leave for America when an economic downturn causes layoffs. Ivor (Patric Knowles, who is seen quite a bit but has almost no dialogue) marries Bronwyn (Anna Lee) and later dies in a mining accident on the very day his wife gives birth. Huw's sister (Maureen O'Hara) is in love with the local minister (Walter Pidgeon), but he thinks she would be unhappy having to sacrifice to share his impoverished state. She winds up in an unhappy marriage with the rich son of the mine owner. Later, when she returns to the town still married but alone, gossip flares up about she and Pidgeon. We also follow various other trials undergone by McDowell, Crisp, and Sara Allgood, the mother of the brood.

Basically, the arc of the story is downward; things get worse and worse, and then someone dies, and they get worse some more, although the tone of the movie is not as downbeat as that description implies. The episodes get shorter and choppier in the last half, giving the film a rushed feeling (probably due to the fact that it was based on a novel and was intended to be a 4-hour epic on the scale of GONE WITH THE WIND). Crisp and Allgood are excellent and the movie would be worth watching if only for the two of them--both were nominated for Supporting Actor Oscars and Crisp won. McDowell is fine, although he's not convincing as a growing boy; several years pass but he looks and acts the same age throughout. John Loder, usually a B-movie lead, is good as one of the sons; Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, real life brothers, pop up in small roles, with Shields memorable as an unpleasant church elder. The look of the film, though occasionally artificial, is generally quite good, with the sloping street of houses and mine chimneys providing a strong backdrop for much of the action. The luminous black and white cinematography is by Arthur Miller who won an Oscar. Overall, not an uplifiting movie, but an absorbing one which I imagine will stand up to multiple viewings.

Friday, December 26, 2003


Typical Warners film of the era; the plotline may have been original back then, but now it feels full of cliches and stale stereotypes. James Cagney is Chesty O'Connor, a scrappy ironworker who delights in taunting the Navy men who work nearby, particularly Pat O'Brien. Their antagonistic relationship blows up at an ironworkers' party where O'Brien steals Cagney's girl (Dorothy Tree) and wins a fist fight. Cagney decides to join the Navy to get back at O'Brien; in the meantime, he starts dating O'Brien's sister (Gloria Stuart, the older Rose in TITANIC), and when they get serious, O'Brien tries to lay down the law. Cagney manages to piss off all the Navy men with his cocky, anti-authoritarian patter, but he comes through for his fellow sailors during a fire on board a ship, the Arizona (the same ship that, in real life, was sunk at Pearl Harbor). Later, he even saves O'Brien's life when both of them wind up hanging from an airborne dirigible. They develop mutual respect, if not friendship. Frank McHugh plays Cagney's buddy Droopy; a running gag involves Droopy's mom's false teeth and her ability to sing. The Cagney/Stuart relationship is not fleshed out very well; it's difficult to see what someone of her relative refinement sees in Cagney's rudeness and tough demeanor. The friendship between Cagney and McHugh is the most heartfelt thing in the movie; there's no homoerotic charge between them, though at one point, a sailor yells at them, "Swish!! What are you two, a couple of violets?" Recommended mostly for fans of Cagney, or fans of the military-buddies-at-peacetime film, if that is indeed a separate genre.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Christmas on TV--2003

I hardly ever watch made-for-TV movies, but given my love of all things Christmas, I make an exception in December and allow myself to watch one or two of the holiday offerings each year. As I sat down to write this, I was thinking that my taste in Christmas TV movies gravitated towards those which featured smoothly and blandly handsome leading men, but I think perhaps that is an inescapable ingredient of TV movies in general. Two years ago, I enjoyed THE SONS OF MISTLETOE with the handsome and likeable George Newbern; last year, I watched (but didn't enjoy as much) SANTA JR. with the handsome and likeable Nick Stabile. This year, my handsome and likeable pick is Steven Eckholdt (who I always used to get confused with the handsome but mean Aaron Eckhart) in SECRET SANTA. Actually, the star is Jennie Garth, who plays a human-interest reporter dying for a shot at a good investigative story; she winds up in the small town of Hamden, Indiana trying to find out the identity of the "Secret Santa" who has for several years given deserving poor folks in town expensive and life-altering gifts. Her first guess is Eckholdt, a local rich nice guy and widower, but what about Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver on "Leave It to Beaver"), sweet resident of a nursing home who gives Garth a copy her favorite story, "The Gift of the Magi"? Or Charlie Robinson (the clerk on "Night Court"), a sweet natured employee at the home who devotes much of his time to the residents? It's easy to figure out the identity of the gift-giver, as it's easy to predict what Garth will do with her story. Garth, despite her years on "Beverly Hills 90210," is a little out of her league here, which is a shame because she's the only actor given much to do. Eckholdt, Billingsley, and especially Robinson are good but underused. Still, the time flew by fairly quickly and the inevitable kid in the wheelchair doesn't turn into Tiny Tim.

I also watched ELOISE AT CHRISTMASTIME which, surprisingly, also had a blandly handsome leading man, though he only gets fifth or sixth billing. Eloise, the heroine of a series of children's books of the 50's, is the little rich girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel. I have enjoyed the illustrated books, but when she comes to life, it turns out she's not all that likeable. It's not the fault of the actress, 11-year-old Sofia Vassilieva, who is quite good. It's just that when her shenanigans are taken off the page and brought to the small screen, they seem more obnoxious than charming. Despite the Christmas trappings, the story has little to do with the holiday. Eloise winds up playing matchmaker for the daughter of the hotel owner (Sarah Topham) who has returned to New York for the first time in years, and the poor but handsome and likeable bellman (Gavin Creel) who has had an unrequited crush on her for a long time. Unfortunately, she's getting married to the rich but irritating Rick Roberts (and it turns out he isn't even rich, but is basically a golddigger) and Eloise only has a few days to make things come out like they should. Julie Andrews is wonderful as the nanny (of *course* she is!), though she doesn't have a lot to do. Creel is quite dashing and a good dancer. I just wish it had been a bit more Christmasy.

Monday, December 22, 2003


This TV-movie version of the Dickens classic doesn't have the reputation it deserves, perhaps because it rarely shows up on TV, though it has been issued on tape and DVD. Set in a Massachusetts town during the Depression, it stars Henry Winkler as Ben Slade, a mean and lonely old man who delights in spending his Christmas Eve evicting unemployed folks and repossessing furniture. Thatcher, his assistant, played by R.H. Thomson, gets no glee from accompanying Slade, and winds up getting fired for his suggestion that Slade could use his fortune to reopen a local quarry so the townsfolk could get back to work. That night, Slade is visited by the ghost of his late business partner and warned to expect "visitations" that will show him the error of his ways. The supernatural visitors take the form of the down-on-their-luck people that Slade has visited earlier that day. We see Slade go from an enterprising young man to a successful but ruthless businessman who alienates most everyone who was important to him. Of course, when he wakes up Christmas morning, he's a changed man. The character of Slade is a little more fleshed out than some movie Scrooges, and Winkler is good (though his old man makeup is not terribly convincing). David Wayne, a bookseller, becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Dorian Harewood, a poor black man who had his oven and furniture taken, is the Future, dressed in gold chains and a leisure suit, which dates the movie a bit. Slade's time-traveling is denoted by his radio, which plays snatches of music and news from various eras. There are few surprises here, but it's fun to watch and see how the elements of the original story get transformed (and surprisingly there is no "God bless us every one" from Tiny Tim, or Little Mr. T. has he's called here). While this version doesn't approach the heights of the Sim or Scott versions, it's still most definitely worth a seasonal look.

Sunday, December 21, 2003


One of the less interesting Bing Crosby musicals from his heyday in the 40's. Set in the unspecified past in New Orleans, Crosby plays a musican who is set on starting up the first all-white blues band (!?). He and his gang of part-time musicians hear of a "hot" cornet player from Memphis (Brain Donlevy) who has blown into town and right into jail, so they all leave they day jobs, get Donlevy free, meet up (quite improbably) with Mary Martin (a "hot" girl singer) and together get a good start on bleaching out the blues. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson is Crosby's loyal sidekick, Carolyn Lee is Martin's nine-year-old aunt (!?), and some real musicians (Perry Botkin and Jack Teagarden among them) make up the band. I'm hardly an expert on the blues, but most of the music in the movie sounds nothing like the blues, except for a nice sequence when Anderson seems to be on his deathbed; the band plays "St. James Infirmary" and his wife Ruby Elzy sings "St. Louis Blues." More often, the songs are vaguely "hot" arrangements of songs like "Wait Til the Sun Shines Nellie" and "Melancholy Baby." The numbers are fine, but they sure ain't the blues. J. Carroll Naish and Warren Hymer also appear, and Cecil Kellaway has a cameo. Aside from the opening buisness with Donlevy, the rest is fairly slow going. Botkin's name was familiar to me from seeing it on album jackets in the 60's and 70's; he did musical arrangements for, among others, The Lettermen, the Friends of Distinction, Carly Simon, and Harry Nilsson, including one of my favorite albums of all time, "Pandemonium Shadow Show."

Friday, December 19, 2003


This was the last movie Helen Hayes made for almost 20 years; I don't know this one drove her into screen retirement, but it is no classic. It's an episodic melodrama with little to distinguish it from any other run-of-the-mill melodrama of its day. Hayes is Vanessa, daughter of Lewis Stone and granddaughter of May Robson (who is turning 100 as the film begin). Hayes is in love with a cousin, the dashing and slightly roguish Robert Montgomery, and he with her. However, Otto Kruger is also in love with Hayes; he's the opposite of dashing (and a little neurotic), but he's also a bit more respectable than Montgomery. Hayes and Montgomery are soon to be married when a tragic fire sweeps through her family house and claims her father's life. Montgomery saves her, but she thinks he deliberately didn't save her father--we know what she doesn't, that Stone was dead of a heart attack by the time Montgomery got to him. She tells him off and he goes on a bender, winding up married to a lusty barmaid. Over time, Hayes sees the error of her ways but gives in and marries Kruger, who is mentally ill (though that information is kept from Hayes--by this time, I was beginning to think they all lived in Pine Valley!). Montgomery becomes free, but by that time, Kruger has gone insane and she feels she cannot leave him. Despite being made during the Production Code era, the impression is definitely given that Hayes and Montgomery are rather openly carrying on an affair. In an abrupt ending, Kruger dies and Our Lovers can make it legal. There are lots of short scenes, almost tableaux, and after the first 20 minutes or so, the dramatic tension slackens. Also in the cast are Henry Stephenson, Donald Crisp, and Jessie Ralph. Produced by David Selznick and not his finest hour, although a few elements here would make their way into GONE WITH THE WIND (ill-starred lovers, dying soldiers, and a scene of two people standing silhouetted in the distance under a huge tree--remember Scarlett and her father early in the movie?).

Thursday, December 18, 2003


A moody opening (reminiscent of GREAT EXPECTATIONS) is the best thing about this routine pirate melodrama which plays out like a cross between JAMAICA INN and a Disney kid's adventure. Young orphan Jon Whiteley is sent to the town of Moonfleet, a British coast town, to be taken care of by town squire Stewart Granger who, despite his respectable trappings, is also the head of a local smuggling ring. Most of the story is seen through the boy's eyes as Granger's men (including Melville Cooper and Sean McClory) become figures of menace when Whiteley finds a code that leads to the discovery of a missing valuable jewel. Viveca Lindfors is underused as Granger's lover; also underused are George Sanders and Joan Greenwood as a scheming couple. Dancer Liliane Montevecchi has a sexy (if totally out of the blue) dance number. Scenes set in graveyards and secret passages are properly atmospheric but the film, like many 50's movies, is too bloated to be fun, or to be taken seriously. Directed by Fritz Lang using a widescreen process (which he was on record as despising).


Nifty B-mystery which begins quite effectively with a close-up of the face of Walter Abel--he is stumbling through a foggy park at night, disoriented and with a small head wound. He has amnesia and becomes convinced that he was involved in the murder earlier that night of a theaterical producer. With the help of an out-of-work actress (Margot Grahame) whom he meets in the park, Abel tries to figure out who he is and how he's tied to the murder. Some circumstantial evidence suggests that he is the dead man's chauffeur but after hooking up with a cop (Alan Hale) and a reporter (Wallace Ford) by pretending to be a reporter himself, Abel and Grahame begin to solve the puzzle. The solution involves the manuscript of a play and a writer who was being cheated out of money and credit. The strong supporting cast includes Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes, Leslie Fenton, and Ward Bond. I've always liked Abel, who usually played supporting roles (HOLIDAY INN, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE) and he makes a good B-lead here in one of his earliest movies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003


Spoilers included!
A superb WWI film; though it doesn't have the epic sweep or tone of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, it does have a strong anti-war message and is almost as powerful as the earlier, better known film. Fredric March is a pilot for the British Air Corps who becomes a "top gun" in the skies over France, heading several successful missions. He slowly becomes distressed as he loses a total of five "observers" during his flights, men who sit behind him and observe the ground for enemy information. Despite these losses of life, he is still hailed as a hero every time he returns, and this begins to temper his initial gung-ho attitude. Cary Grant is a fellow serviceman who doesn't cut it as a pilot and is relegated to observer status, causing some resentment between the two men. Jack Oakie is buddy to both men and tries to keep the peace. The growing disillusionment of all the men is shown--at first, they have a boyish, sporting ethusiasm for their job, but the growing death and destruction get to them all. When Grant kills a German who was parachuting from a burning plane, he is ostracized by the other men for not playing fair.

At one point, March is given a leave, visits Paris, and has a brief fling with Carole Lombard (billed as "The Beautiful Lady"), but when he returns his attitude isn't much better. Shocked at the youthfulness of the new pilots, he snaps completely when he shoots down a renowned German ace who turns out to be just a boy. March delivers an impassioned, if not totally coherent, anti-war speech at a drunken party given in his honor, then goes to his room and kills himself. Grant finds him and takes extraordinary measures to make sure his death is seen as brave and sacrificial. Grant is very good in a role unlike any others in his career. March is outstanding, especially in the last half. Oakie has an amusing line spoken to a young lady that probably could not have gotten in under the Production Code a year later: "You might be Fifi to the rest of the world, but you're nothing but Fanny to me." An excellent movie that deserves to be much better known. It doesn't crop up on cable, but it is available on video and worth seeking out.

Sunday, December 14, 2003


A notorious Poverty Row horror "classic" which feels in retrospect very much like a forerunner of the films of Ed Wood. Bela Lugosi is Dr. Carruthers, a seemingly kindly old doctor in a small town who, unbeknowest to the populace, has been experimenting with producing large mutant bats in his home laboratory--we're told this in an opening title card, the lazy, no-budget way of gettting exposition across. He's disgruntled because he feels cheated out of his share of the Heath cosmetics millions; he creates scents, but sold out his rights for cash years ago, and now gets no dividends from the company's success. His new scent is disguised as a men's shaving lotion, but it actually works to both attract and repel his giant bats, who hunt down and kill whoever is wearing it. A couple of times, the bat is effective, but mostly it's a ludicrous effect, looking like a tired buzzard on wires. Dave O'Brien, known more for the Dave Smith short comedy films of the 40's, is a wisecracking reporter; Donald Kerr, an uncredited bit player in hundreds of movies, is the gratingly silly photographer One-Shot McGuire; Suzanne Kaaren is the lame female lead. The sets are cheap, the acting mostly third-rate. Lugosi is OK, except when he continues to exaggeratedly intone, "Good-BYE!" to his future victims as he gives them the shaving lotion. This has become famous as one of Lugosi's worst movies, though it's not quite as bad as his Ed Wood films of the 50's. Too bad that MST3K never got their hands on this one.

Friday, December 12, 2003


A minor entry from the classic era of film noir. The first few minutes set up the situation: Steve Brodie is a trucker with a new wife (Audrey Long) and a fledgling independent business. Raymond Burr, an acquaintance from years ago, hires Brodie for what seems to be a routine job but which actually ends up as a heist. Once Brodie realizes what's happening, he tries to back out but not before the whole thing goes bad: a cop is shot and Burr's kid brother is arrested and charged with murder. Burr tries to force Brodie to take the rap by threatening to get his wife, but Brodie and Long manage to get out of town. Most of the rest of the movie follows their progress from city to farmland (where they stay briefly with Long's family) to the West Coast, where Burr finally catches up with him on the night of the brother's execution. The highlight of the movie is an archetypal noir scene of torture (Burr beating up Brodie) beneath a swinging bare light bulb in a dark basement. There are a few other visual treats as well, including the climax which takes place on an apartment stairwell. There's a surreal moment when Brodie hides in a truck filled with gigantic carnival faces. Douglas Fowley is a detective Burr hires to find Brodie; Jason Robards Sr. is a cop who isn't sure whom to believe. The lead couple is rather bland, but Burr is very creepy. Directed by Anthony Mann, known for his noirs and westerns.

Thursday, December 11, 2003


Because this feels so much like Ernst's Lubitsch's classic TROUBLE IN PARADISE, it's bound to come off as a sort of poor cousin to that film, but this has some charms of its own, primarily in the chemistry of the romantic leads. In Vienna, bored rich Kay Francis is getting an expensive diamond ring as a gift from her husband, the Baron (Henry Kolker). While in the jewelry store with him (and her young lover, Hardie Albright), suave and daring jewel thief William Powell shows up with a large gang of assistants and cleans out the store; he holds them all at gunpoint but is charming and gentlemanly about the whole thing. He even gets a security guard (Spencer Charters) to help him (unwittingly) get the gems out to his getaway car. Francis flirts with Powell; she's attracted by Powell's looks and daring, but she also wants her ring back. He locks everyone up but her and she lets him escape, claiming later to the police that she fainted. Powell sneaks into Francis' bedroom and returns the ring while also planning to stash the gems in her safe until the heat dies down, but his plans appear to be dashed when a detective (Alan Mowbray) catches him trying to escape out the window. However, things are not quite as they appear and ultimately, Powell gets away scot-free to France and the married Francis, in the very last shot of the film, lets us know she'll be joining him.

The first 20 minutes or so drag a bit as the characters of Francis and her group are set up, but when Francis and Powell are on screen together, they keep things interesting. This is the absolute model of a pre-Code film, with the thief getting away and the married lady having affairs and going unpunished. Most surprsingly, however, is the importance of marijuana to the plot. Powell hands out "drugged" cigarettes to keep folks off-guard, and they are clearly filled with pot. They make people dizzy and happy; the smokers eventually fall asleep and wake up with healthy appetites. The funniest scene in the film has the disgraced security guard getting high with the chief of police (Clarence Wilson). Helen Vinson plays Francis' best friend and has a few good lines, though generally she is underused. Ruth Donnelly has a small role as a maid. Despite a few Lubitsch-like touches, this is not as frothy or "sophisticated" as the genuine article, but it's certainly likeable and a must-see for any fans of Powell or Francis.

Monday, December 08, 2003


This WWII B-thriller from Twentieth Century Fox is a mixed bag, certainly not as scrappy or light on its feet as a similar Warner Brothers film would be. Dana Andrews is a foreign correspondent (in Berlin, of course) in November, 1941, just before the Americans enter the war. He gets tips about German troop movements and "smuggles" them over the airwaves in code so his newspaper is able to get a string of exclusive stories. Gestapo captain Martin Kosleck enlists his own fiancee (Virginia Gilmore) to figure out how Andrews is getting his information, but she is unaware that the spy helping Andrews is none other than her own father (Erwin Kalser) who seems to be just a harmless stamp collector. Kalser is put in a concentration camp then transfered to an asylum; Andrews poses as a Nazi to get him out, but that's only the beginning of his troubles. Kosleck's jealous secretary (Mona Maris) throws monkey wrenches into everyone's plans. The movie has a vaguely uncomfortable mix of tension and humor, starting with a running gag about how easy it is for Andrews to outfox whoever is assigned to tail him. At one point, when Andrews starts talking about putting Kosleck on trial, the Gestapo man replies, "Court? Trial? My dear man, this is *Germany*!" Gilmore, who had a short career at Fox as a B-film actress, looks a little like June Lockhart. Short (70 minutes) and filled with incident, but not as fun as it should be.

Saturday, December 06, 2003


The first in B-movie series spun off from the Dead End Kids, done by Universal. Billy Halop is Johnny, a kid from a working class neighborhood in New York City; his father, while working as a scab, accidentally kills a cop during a wild fracas. With the father in jail, the family moves to a lower-class area and Halop gets in with a gang of street toughs, including Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, and David Gorcey. They all wind up "adopted" by a snooty rich kid (Jackie Searl) who craves a taste of danger and helps the kids pull off a small scale crime spree. Halop briefly winds up in a reform school but the gang breaks him out. When one of the kids is killed by police gunfire, the whole group ends up in reform school, including Searl. The ending implies that they are all are indeed getting reformed and on their ways to solid, productive futures--what other ending was possible in those days? Peggy Stewart is a girl from the old neighborhood who remains sweet on Halop. A drab, lifeless actor named Robert Wilcox is the drab, lifeless "hero" who is sweet on Halop's sister and tries to help the family out. Marjorie Main is not at her best as Halop's miserable whining mother. A few more Little Tough Guys movies followed, but I don't think I need to see any others.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


An totally fictional account of how radio became a mass medium. The movie begins in a sprightly and humorous way but, like many Fox musicals of the era, it gets bogged down when it tries to get serious around the halfway point. John Payne is a young WWI vet who has just failed at his first business, a small airport; he meets up with enterprising Jack Oakie who has ideas about using radio as a vehicle for entertainment. With financial backing from Cesar Romero, they begin broadcasting live music and boxing matches to a citywide audience, eventually building to a nationwide network. Oakie's singer girlfriend, Alice Faye, falls for Payne (given the choice between Payne and Oakie, who wouldn't?) which leads to a falling-out between the buddies. Oakie & Romero hit it rich--Payne and Faye get married, but when she goes behind Payne's back to get some money from Romero for their enterprise, proud Payne leaves her. All are reconciled by the end in a number that might have influenced the end of HOLIDAY INN. We see quick clips of Jack Benny and Kate Smith in the beginning; the Nicholas Brothers do a spectacularly athletic dance number and the comic Weire Brothers do songs and jokes, including a very funny ad for Chapman's Cheerful Cheese. Despite the downturn in the last half, this is worth watching, especially for fans of Faye and Payne. Even Oakie is a little less obnoxious than usual. One complaint--the period detail (supposedly the 20's) is virtually non-exisistent.

Monday, December 01, 2003

CRACK-UP (1946)

A noirish thriller with potential, rendered somewhat bland due to the two male leads, Pat O'Brien and Herbert Marshall. O'Brien plays an expert on art and art forgeries who works for the Manhattan Museum. Early in the film, we see him come crashing into the lobby of the museum, apparently drunk, smashing some windows and a sculpture. After he is subdued, he claims that the last thing he remembers was escaping a dangerous train wreck, but there is no report of any train accident that night. He loses his job but is determined, with the help of Claire Trevor, to get to the bottom of his predicament. The scene in which he boards the train in an attempt to recreate what happened to him the night of the supposed accident is suspenseful and plays out very nicely. It turns out that some forgers at the museum who want O'Brien out of the way are behind his unusual experience (and the explanation of that experience is clever, if a bit far-fetched). Herbert Marshall plays an ill-defined character on the sidelines who, it turns out, works for Scotland Yard. Ray Collins is the chief bad guy and Wallace Ford is a cop. The plot partially turns on the dichotomy between high art and popular art, in a way similiar to how many 40's musicals played on the split between classical music and modern jazz.