Friday, February 27, 2004


Interesting collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and his muse Marlene Dietrich, though not as exotic or racy as some of their other films. It's a pre-Code romance/thriller set almost entirely on a train going from Peking to Shanghai. Dietrich is Madeleine, now known as Shanghai Lily, a "coaster" who goes about living off of a string of men. When she is asked if her name change was due to marriage, she replies with the infamous line, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Her equally notorious traveling companion is Anna Mae Wong, and when they are in their compartment with the gramophone cranked up, lounging about in dishabille, they evoke casual decadence as well as Joan Crawford did in RAIN. Clive Brook is Dietrich's former lover, a British officer and doctor who left her years ago over jealousy and a lack of faith in her. Warner Oland is a businessman who turns out to be a Chinese warlord in disguise; after an important underling of his is arrested just before the train departs, Oland stops the train midway in its route, looking for a hostage, and decides to hold Brook, who is needed in Shanghai to operate on an important person. Soon, however, Oland is threatening Brook's life and Dietrich agrees to become the warlord's mistress to save her ex-lover. The action of the last 15 minutes, involving murder and a test of Brook's faith, leads to a rather hollow happy ending as Dietrich takes Brook back.

Eugene Pallette, less froggy and clownish than usual (he is perhaps best known as Friar Tuck in the Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD) is good as a fellow passenger; Gustav von Seyffertitz (featured in dozens of 30's movies as thuggish or ridiculous Germans) is an opium dealer who insults Oland early in the movie and pays a price later. Lawrence Grant is a minister who rails against the two fallen women (also reminiscent of RAIN), but who later shows compassion for Dietrich when Brook won't; he ends up being a go-between in their eventual reconciliation. Oland looks a great deal like Charlie Chan, whom he played in several movies, but sounds nothing like him and is very good in the part--I was almost hoping that he *would* get Dietrich. As in many of Sternberg's films, the visuals are often striking; here, the best looking scene is when bandits (actually Oland's men) come out of the fog and swarm over the train. Brook is stiff as a stick and almost totally unromantic--why the fabulous Dietrich would lose her heart to him is beyond rationality. Dietrich rarely got a leading man worthy of her; not Brook, not Lionel Atwill, and not Herbert Marshall; Gary Cooper, in MOROCCO, came close, and he would have been a much better choice for leading man here, Still, a movie well worth seeing. [VHS]

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


An odd duck of a movie. Lionel Atwill is a big-shot money man under lots of pressure from all sides; his doctor suggests that he get away for some peace and quiet, so he arranges to spend a week at his isolated ranch. But, of course, things wind up not so peaceful or quiet. A plane attempts to make an emergency landing near Atwill's ranch. On board are a starlet (Ann Loring) on her way to Hollywood for a screen test that had been set up by Atwill (her ex-sugar daddy, I assumed), a fading actor (Louis Hayward) traveling with Loring, a reporter (Stuart Irwin), and the governor (Raymond Walburn), Atwill's nemesis. Before Atwill can get his private airstrip lit up for the landing, a pair of escaped criminals (Wallace Ford and Bernadene Hayes) arrive, looking for a car. They force Atwill to leave the airstrip dark; the plane crash lands, killing the pilots; Walburn shoves Loring aside in a cowardly fashion to escape injury, and Hayward suffers major facial damage that he assumes will kill his career. The rest of the film plays out a bit like KEY LARGO as the motley group of good guys and bad guys interact. There is too much going on for a short B-film with limited writing and directing talent behind it. Atwill is good, remaining an ambigious figure throughout: sometimes likeable, sometimes reprehensible. Irene Hervey, who has accompanied Atwill to the ranch, seems to be a mistress figure (her husband is on his way to the ranch in another plane, piloted by a drunkard!), but she comes off more like Atwill's niece. Ford and Hayes are the most interesting characters; it turns out they're ex-vaudevillians who've become Bonnie & Clyde-type murderers. All this makes the movie sound more interesting than it really is. [TCM]

Saturday, February 21, 2004


I have never been terribly impressed by John Barrymore, but he is excellent here playing a Jewish lawyer who has worked his way to the top of his profession. Despite having a large office suite high up in the Empire State Building, he still keeps his door open to old friends and neighbors, and his sweet old mother frequently drops by to chat (Yiddish phrases like "goniff" pop up here and there in the script). Years ago, early in his career, Barrymore helped a friend (John Qualen) fake an alibi. Now a rival lawyer has discovered this and is threatening to expose him. As if this career crisis weren't bad enough, Barrymore also discovers that his wife (Doris Kenyon), who has two obnoxious children from a previous marriage, has been unfaithful. Distraught, Barrymore attempts suicide; can his faithful secretary (Bebe Daniels), who walks in just as he's about to leap from a window in his office, help him find the will to overcome his troubles? Despite his occasional lapses (including some rather egregious overcharging of his rich clients), Barrymore is meant to be seen as a basically good man, and it's no surprise that he does indeed set things right by the end, even though he has to resort to blackmail to do so--and since it's a pre-Code movie, he gets away with it. The film moves at a fast clip, almost like a screwball comedy, which it's not, even though it has its comic moments. The movie was based on a play and it shows, as almost all the action takes place in the offices, but the busy style is anything but stagey as the camera constantly bustles around and we observe several supporting characters with their own stories: Isabel Jewell is fun as a fast-talking, food-munching telephone operator; Marvin Kline is an office boy with a rather pathetic crush on Daniels; Onslow Stevens is Barrymore's office partner. Thelma Todd and Mayo Methot (Bogart's ex) also appear. Barrymore's performance is full blooded but not hammy, as he tended to be in other films. [DVD]

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


Despite the exotic allure of the title, this is a mostly bland remake of an early Bette Davis vehicle, DANGEROUS, which was not very compelling the first time around (even though it won her an Oscar). David Bruce owns a rubber plantation in Singapore; one night, while out on the town with friends (including Jerome Cowan, who was Miles Archer in THE MALTESE FALCON), he sees Brenda Marshall, a former rich girl who ran into bad times and dropped out of society. Bruce was present when the scandalous event that started her slide occured: a man, distraught over her inattention, killed himself in her bedroom--a flashback scene that feels borrowed from another Bette Davis film, THE LETTER. Marshall now considers herself a jinx but Bruce decides to take her to his plantation and reform her, despite the imminent arrival of his fiancee, Virginia Field. At first, Marshall is a tough and unrepentant cookie but soon Bruce is giving her financial backing so she can resuscitate her father's business and things are looking up. Suddenly, Marshall's husband, presumed dead, shows up and tries to take over the business. As in DANGEROUS, there is alcoholism, a car crash, and redemption. At around an hour, it goes by fairly painlessly; Bruce is deadly dull, but Marshall's not bad. [TCM]

Sunday, February 15, 2004


A Fritz Lang spy film set in the latter days of WWII. Gary Cooper is a physics professor (at Midwestern University!) who is working on the atom bomb; he is recruited by the OSS to go off to Switzerland to debrief a brilliant Hungarian scientist who has defected to the Allies (Helen Thimig); they need to find out how far along the German atom program is. Soon after he meets her, she is kidnapped by Nazis and, even though Cooper and others chase after her, she is eventually killed. Cooper then heads off to Italy in an attempt to bring back another atomic scientist (Vladimir Sokoloff); he will go willingly only if they can free his daughter, who is being held by the Nazis. Most of Cooper's band of Resistence fighers (including Robert Alda, Alan's real-life father) go off to get the daughter, while Cooper stays with Lilli Palmer and, of course, a romance develops. There is some brutal violence, including a memorable fight between Cooper and the thuggish Marc Lawrence (a scene that seems to have influenced Hitchcock in TORN CURTAIN) and some double crosses involving lovely female Nazi spies. The Cooper/Palmer romance bogs the proceedings down, especially a silly bit with a meowing cat, but generally the movie goes along at a nice clip, and the wrap up in the last 15 minutes is satisfying. James Flavin plays an old friend of Cooper's who visits him from the OSS; Marjorie Hoshelle has a nice bit as a spy. I don't normally notice background music, but the score by Max Steiner is quite good, at least until the last 5 minutes, when it gets bizarrely bombastic. One complaint: there isn't nearly as much spying and sneaking around in the dark as the title leads one to expect. [DVD]

Friday, February 13, 2004


A noirish crime film with John Payne as an ex-con who's gone straight and makes his living delivering flowers. One morning, just after he's made a delivery, he gets caught up in the aftermath of an armored car heist because the crooks used a duplicate of his truck. He's picked up for questioning and eventually clears himself but goes on the trail of the gang for revenge. The gang members, brought together for this one robbery, all wear masks so they won't be tempted to pull any double crosses before they split the money a few weeks later in Mexico. The head honcho is Preston Foster, an ex-cop gone bad. Payne, in Mexico on his trail, falls for Foster's daughter (Coleen Gray). The other thugs are Jack Elam (quite young and not nearly as freakish looking as he was in later years), Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand. 40's starlet Dona Drake (ROAD TO MOROCCO) plays a Tijuana beauty stuck mostly in the background. There are a lot of fisticuffs and close-ups of sweaty faces. Payne, looking much older and craggier than just four years earlier in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, overacts a bit but Foster is quite good. Despite the title, very little of this takes place in Kansas City. [DVD]


A Warners B-movie, and not one of their better ones. The title conjures up horror or sci-fi, but this is a straightforward spy story. It's set in England during the war; John Loder is a British soldier who is being kept in a hospital under observation for shell shock, but it turns out that Nazi spies are holding him prisoner to stop him from conveying important information to his superiors. The set up has promise, but the picture becomes drab and forgettable. With the weasly John Abbot as a Nazi and Ruth Ford as the romantic interest. Loder is his usual dependable second-string lead self, but for a better B-spy movie masquerading as a horror film with John Loder, see THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR. [TCM]

Thursday, February 12, 2004


A twisty little crime/courtroom thriller. Franchot Tone is an ambitious prosecuting attorney who is trying a murder case, based on circumstantial evidence, against a mild-mannered man (Dudley Digges) accused of throwing his wife off a cliff. Tone's wife, Loretta Young, could testify to Digges' innocence; she was present at the scene but won't come forward because she was there to pay off a blackmailer (Henry Daniell) who has incriminating letters from Tone to another woman (Aileen Pringle). Soon, Pringle is found murdered and circumstantial evidence points to Tone. I don't want to give away the tricky ending, but I will say that Tone isn't quite up to the task of presenting subtle shifts of character to keep us off-balance. Because of his rather weak performance, the solution is a little more obvious than it should have been. Roland Young is good as a friend of the family; there's a nice scene toward the end in which Young and Lewis Stone sort through the evidence against Tone. Worth seeing. [TCM]


A needless B-movie remake, in the Warners tradition, of THE PETRIFIED FOREST, with Nazis replacing gangsters. The rather wooden Philip Dorn stands in for the passive Leslie Howard, as a Dutch pilot and artist who winds up in the middle of the desert at a roadside diner where Jean Sullivan and her father (Samuel S. Hinds) mistake him for a Nazi spy. Helmut Dantine is the real spy who holds folks hostage; Kurt Kreuger is a cute Nazi who wears a football jersey; Alan Hale and Irene Manning show up briefly. Not a terribly effective movie, although the action toward the end may be enough to satisfy B-movie fans. Sullivan was a starlet who made three movies in the 40's before vanishing until popping back up on a soap opera ("Somerset") in the 70's. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


Fictionalized biography of a famous turn-of-the-century singer and actress. In the usual 20th Century Fox Fox fashion, there are problems with bland acting and plot-heavy proceedings. Alice Faye plays Russell, born and raised in Iowa; her mother (Dorothy Peterson) is a suffragette who, after the family moves to New York, runs unsuccessfully for mayor. Faye is afraid her serious-minded mother won't approve of her attempt at a singing career, but ultimately, her family backs her up--including her father (Ernest Turex) and grandmother (Helen Westley). The rest of the movie is an episodic account of her life as she finds fame and fortune and many friends, but is less successful with love. The supporting roles are filled with familiar names: Henry Fonda is a young man who saves Faye from runaway horses and, years later, reconnects with her. Don Ameche is a songwriter who marries Faye but never quite finds professional success of his own. Edward Arnold is Faye's dear friend Diamond Jim Brady (a part he played in DIAMOND JIM five years earlier) and Warren William is a rich admirer. Nigel Bruce is Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan); Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own real-life father and Una O'Connor is, what else, a maid. The movie is a bit long at 2 hours, and Faye is a big blank at the center of the film; she's certainly not terrible, but there is no spark in her eyes and her voice and bearing suggest nothing about what might have made the real Lillian Russell special. There are some nice musical numbers, such as "After the Ball," "The Band Played On," and "Under the Bamboo Tree." One highlight has her making news by singing to President Grover Cleveland over the telephone from backstage at a show. Westley has the best line in the movie; when someone asks if Russell's father is still alive, she replies, "With a suffragette wife and five daughters, I don't know if you can call it living." [FMC]

Sunday, February 08, 2004

H.M. PULHAM, ESQ. (1941)

This is one of those movies in which a character looks back on his life from some high or low point and re-assess everything. The first 45 minutes or so are quite enjoyable, but as it focuses in on one story, it loses some of its charm. Robert Young is Pulham, a young man of means who tries to make his own way in life, but gets sucked back into the family circle. His best friend, Van Heflin, helps keep him grounded. He is supposed to marry Ruth Hussey, a rich but bland girl, but he falls for Hedy Lamarr, a co-worker at his advertising agency. His father (Charles Coburn) disapproves of his son's decisions; after Coburn dies, Young returns to his old life and settles down with Hussey. Most of the film is a flashback occasioned by a return visit from Lamarr; Young realizes he has always done what was expected of him by others, but never done what he wants. He is tempted to have an affair with Lamarr, but resists the temptation and ultimately seems to make his peace with Hussey and his situation. Ho-hum. [TCM]


The very funny 1982 comedy VICTOR/VICTORIA was based on a German film from 1933, but in between, there was this British version with the same plot, with less emphasis on gay and camp elements. British music hall star Jessie Matthews is Elizabeth, a young woman hoping to make it big in show biz. She meets up with Victor (Sonnie Hale), a female impersonator with a yearning to do Shakespeare. When he loses his voice one night, Elizabeth goes on as Victoria and is a big success. A princess (Anna Lee) and her fiance (Griffith Jones) get entangled in their affairs. Unlike in the Blake Edwards version, there is some real (albeit brief) sexual tension when Jones thinks that Matthews is really a man--I never felt any real tension between James Garner and Julie Andrews. The overall plot structure is the same as the in the 80's film. I haven't seen the original, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, so I can't compare that one. This version has some wonderful Busby Berkeleyesque musical numbers. Overall, an enjoyable diversion. Lee was Sister Margretta in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and Jones was the father of Gemma Jones, the mother in BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY. [VHS]

Thursday, February 05, 2004


Despite the title, this is nowhere near being a definitive Big Apple love story--THE CLOCK, ON THE TOWN, or even SERENDIPITY come much closer to that. In fact, it's the romance element that is sorely lacking here. Francis Lederer plays a Czech immigrant who arrives in New York with 50 bucks and no immediate job prospects; the immigration officials tell him he must have at least $200, so he is put on the next boat back to Europe. However, he manages, rather too easily, to jump ship and make it back to the city. Roaming the streets, he sneaks into a theater during a rehearsal and takes some of the backstage food spread. Chorus girl Ginger Rogers, who already has her hands full taking care of her little brother (Jimmy Butler, from MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH), befriends him, not knowing he is illegally in the country. Rather by rote, they fall in love, but that is a side plot compared to 1) Lederer's situation, and 2) Rogers' problems when her show closes and she is considered not fit to raise her brother. With Lederer's proposal of marriage and the help of a friendly Irish cop (J. Farrell McDonald), everything works out in the end. Lederer spouts many cooing love speeches to New York and America, and he and Rogers do get a little chemistry going, but they never really seem to be in love. The happy ending comes about even though many people flout many laws. For me, the most romantic moment is when Lederer sleeps on the roof of Rogers' building and rhapsodizes about the (patently false) Manhattan skyline. Also with Sidney Toler, Donald Meek, and Eily Malyon, the ubiquitous landlady/maid of 30's movies. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 03, 2004


The problem with this, like FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, is that it tries way too hard to be light and whimsical. Set in a fictional European kingdom, the plot involves an invading colonel (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who meets his match in a lovely countess (Betty Grable). The story that plays out between the two matches a renowed historical event 300 years earlier when Grable's ancestor (also played by Grable) seduced and killed a similar invader (also Fairbanks). In the present-day plotline, the spirits of the royal ancestors come alive (stepping out of their portraits hung in a grand hall) and rally to help inspire the current countess. The tragedy of the past becomes romantic comedy in the present. Cesar Romero is Grable's new husband, something of a cowardly gold digger; Walter Abel is Fairbanks' assistant; Reginald Gardiner is a ghostly ancestor; Harry Davenport (who must have been about 112) and Whit Bissell also appear. It's a colorful movie with some nice touches, like an animated sun that shoots up in the sky at dawn, and there's a very funny moment when background orchestral film music turns out to have been played live by a small combo in the room. Ernst Lubitsch began work on this, but died early on and Otto Preminger (as far from whimsical as you can get) took over. Fairbanks is a bit long in the tooth for the role, and doesn't give 100 percent. Grable is better, but still mostly just serviceable. The whole thing needed to be played lightly and more broadly. [FMC]