Thursday, April 29, 2004


A primitive early musical; the production numbers, in color, are fairly well executed but the rest is a long haul to get through and there is sometimes an amateurish air about the proceedings. The biggest amateur of them all is leading man Charles Kaley who deservedly remained an unknown, with only one other feature film to his credit. To be fair, his character is a tough nut to crack. He plays Roy, a pianist in a bar, who gets a big break when Cliff Edwards (later the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's PINOCCHIO) sings some songs he wrote. The two form a partnership, joined by pianist Marion Shilling, whom Kaley discovers in a music shop. It's established that Kaley is a heel, carrying on affairs with women seemingly only to get songwriting inspiration from them, then dumping them and moving on. As the trio hit the big time, he's sweet on Shilling for a while, but then gets his head turned by sexy singer Ethelind Terry. He drops Shilling, not realizing that Terry is actually Edwards' wife, though they're separated. Things take a melodramatic turn with the death of one character, and eventually Kaley, his composing talent apparently gone, sees the error of his ways and manages to turn his life around. Kaley is almost thoroughly unlikeable all the way through; the stiffness of the actor stops us from having any sympathy for him and the weak writing doesn't allow us to get any real handle on why he is the way he is. Shilling is marginally better, but Edwards, who fleshes out his character a bit, is the real attraction here and he gives a delightful rendition of "Japanese Sandman." Full blooded comic relief is provided by Benny Rubin as Edwards' Jewish manager--his ethnicity is trumpted at full volume, but Rubin is consistently funny and comes to life as well as any of the other characters. Most of the songs are by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, of "Singin' in the Rain" fame. Of interest mostly as a novelty, or for Cliff Edwards fans. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 28, 2004


A WWII story based on the autobiography of Col. Robert L. Scott who flew with the Flying Tigers in China during the early days of the war. Apparently, the Tigers were a group of American volunteers who signed up by contract to fight the Japanese for the Chinese in the late 30's, before Pearl Harbor got our country "officially" into the war. Dennis Morgan plays Scott, an Army Air Corps man who, because he is told he is too old to fly in the Corps, winds up with the Tigers. At first there is some tension and resentment, but soon he comes to respect them. Raymond Massey is Gen. Chennault, the founder of the group; Alan Hale is Big Mike, the very Irish missionary priest who helps inspire Morgan to accept the belief that God is taking a hand in his exploits; Dane Clark is a doomed pilot; Richard Loo, who later played Master Sun in the TV show KUNG FU, is Tokyo Joe, a Japanese pilot who baits the Americans over the radio; Andrea King is Morgan's wife whom we see in flashbacks at home in Georgia. Also with John Ridgely and Craig Stevens. Episodic and cliche-ridden, but fast-moving. [TCM]


Totally undistinguished B-melodrama based on what was at the time an old warhorse of a story, adapted from a play, "The Bad Man," which was filmed four times between 1923 and 1941. The orginal play was set in Mexico, but this version takes place in China. Boris Karloff is Wu Yen Fang, a warlord and leader of bandits who terrorizes villages with his men. He holds a group of American businesspeople hostage but then discovers that one of them (Gordon Oliver) is someone he knew in the past and owes his life to. Further incomprehensible plot complications occur involving land and oil and love and jealousy. Beverly Roberts is a woman who wants to leave her bad guy husband, Ricardo Cortez, for Oliver. Karloff eventually does the right thing for his old friend, but winds up killed by another faction of bandits, or something like that, I think. Karloff and Cortez are the main reasons for watching. Also with Richard Loo (see above) in a small role. [TCM]

Monday, April 26, 2004


An early Jane Wyman comedy, back when she was mighty frisky. The movie is built around a brief fad involving weddings to which the public at large was invited (for an admission fee), often followed by a big dinner at a nearby restaurant. Wyman and her father (Berton Churchill) are carnival workers; their attraction is Moloch, a huge stuffed whale head. Just as they are about to have everything they own repossessed, they come up with the idea of having a fake "public wedding" in the mouth of the whale. After much money is collected, two of Churchill's workers run off with the cash, leaving Wyman stranded at the, at the altar. She finds a beachcombing artist (William Hopper) to play the groom, but unbeknownst to them, the new justice of the peace is real and they discover that they are legally hitched. Wyman, fed up with the carny life, splits from her father and a battle-of-the-wits war of publicity stunts follows between Wyman (helped by Hopper) and Churchill, aided by Dick Purcell and Marie Wilson. As a stunt, Wyman promotes Hopper's art, and it turns out he really does have talent. Clearly, the filmmakers were trying for a screwball feel here, but the B-movie trappings (including the fairly bland leading man) hurt the film. Nevertheless, with a short running time, it's painless fun most of the time. Wyman and Wilson are both good. Also in the cast: B-queen Veda Ann Borg and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson. [TCM]

Saturday, April 24, 2004


This is the first of three B-mysteries based on the character Nurse Sarah Keate created by author Mignon Eberhart. They don't crop up too often, but I was pleased to see this one air on Turner Classic Movies not long after I had read the orginal novel. It's one of the few times that a film adaptation has done justice to a book. The whodunit plot is rather convoluted but the acting and atmosphere make the film worthwhile. Aline MacMahon is Nurse Sarah, who has been called in to take care of a ailing man who has lapsed into a coma just as his relatives are gathering at his mansion on the outskirts of town. Guy Kibbee is cop Lance O'Leary who shows up to investigate the murder of one of the relatives. There's a jade elephant that keep disappearing and reappearing, a murder commited with a violin string, and a fair amount of comic behavior from the two leads and Allen Jenkins. Lyle Talbot is the handsome red herring. The bantering relationship between the nurse and the cop is rather like the one between Hildegarde Withers and the inspector in PENGUIN POOL MYSTERY. As I recall from the book, the old house itself is as memorable as any of the characters and the movie does a good job bringing the place to life. Kibbee seems a bit too old for the cop, but MacMahon is great fun. The second in the series, PATIENT IN ROOM 18 has Ann Sheridan and Patrick Knowles, taking the characters in a much younger direction. The third is MYSTERY HOUSE with Sheridan and Dick Purcell. A fourth film, MURDER BY AN ARISTOCRAT, is based on the same character but gives her a slightly different name. [TCM]

Monday, April 19, 2004


The life of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, based on a play and presented much like a play, or a pageant of historical tableux, or a junior-high filmstrip. Despite the static production, the film does hold your attention, mostly thanks to the fine acting of Louis Calhern as Holmes and Ann Harding as his wife. Most of the film takes place in their home in Washington, in episodes that mark the passage of time. First, just after he has been appointed to the Supreme Court, we see them buying the house in what today would be a "meet cute" scene (except that they're already married) in which it becomes clear that she has already signed the paperwork but is letting her husband think that he has a say in the matter. They settle into the house and Washington life, and soon discover that they cannot have children, so Holmes takes to calling his male secretaries (sent over each year from Yale Law School) his "sons"; this leads to a touching tribute scene near the end. We see some of Holmes' defeats and victories, but we don't really get a strong sense of what he stood for. Eduard Franz is Louis Brandeis, a fellow justice; Philip Ober is Owen Wister, friend of Holmes' and author of the "The Virginian," who is also the narrator; Ian Wolfe is Henry Adams, who is usually on the other side of the political and philosophical fence from Holmes. Among the "sons" whom old movie buffs might recognize are Todd Karns, Richard Anderson, and Jimmy Lydon. Stodgy and drab in execution, but worth watching for Calhern and Harding. [TCM]

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Three Hildegarde Withers mysteries:

There were six Hildegarde Withers movies made between 1932 and 1937, average-budget programmers featuring a "spinster" schoolteacher who just happens to get caught up in murder investigation in which she manages to outwit the police, specifically Inspector Piper. Though both of them are rather cold and brittle, an affectionate relationship develops between them. Three actresses played Hildegarde over the years, though the inspector was always played by James Gleason. By far, the best was Edna May Oliver, who introduced the character in PENGUIN POOL MURDER. After some choppy scenes of exposition, we catch up with Hildegarde and her grade school class on a field trip at a New York City aquarium, where a dead body is found in the penguin pool. The efficient Miss Withers is on the case right away, helping to nab a purse snatcher (who may or may not have something to do with the murder) and keep track of clues for the inspector. The somewhat convoluted plot involves the possible financial ruin of the aquarium director, and an affair between the dead man's wife (Mae Clarke) and another man (Donald Cook). After the lovers are arrested, Clarke's lawyer (Robert Armstrong, the explorer in KING KONG) gets involved, but it takes the unstoppable Hildegarde to sort out the real clues from the red herrings. The plotting and characterizations feel like second-rate Agatha Christie, but Oliver and Gleason make the movie worth seeing.

At the end of PENGUIN, Withers and Piper get engaged, but in the following movie, MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD, they are just casually dating. In this one, a music teacher is found dead at Hildegarde's school. Suspects include the teacher's roommate (Gertrude Michael) who is secretary to the old but lusty principal (Tully Marshall), and Michael's boyfriend (Bruce Cabot) who had dated the dead girl in the past. There's also a drunken janitor who gets around the school building through secret passages, but he's too obvious a suspect to be the the real villain. Oliver and Gleason remain good reasons to watch; other cast members include Regis Toomey, Jackie Searl, and Gustav von Seyffertitz as a crime lab technician (shades of CSI). The best line: when Hildegard tells the inspector, "Stop acting like a movie detective!" BRIDLE PATH is a later entry in which Helen Broderick takes over the role of Miss Withers, and as much as I like Broderick in other films, like TOP HAT and THE BRIDE WALKS OUT, she can't fill Oliver's shoes. The plot involves murder among the upper crust as an heiress is found dead on a horse riding path in Central Park; suspects include her ex-husband, a stable boy, and a man who was sweet on the dead girl's sister. The opening and closing are good, but the middle is rough going and Broderick is just too colorless in the central role. Zasu Pitts also played the character, but I haven't seen either of her films. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 13, 2004


Spoliers included!!
This is an interesting pre-Code film with a good performance by Ruth Chatterton. As was the case with many pre-Code heroines, Chatterton is an fairly naive young girl who has to wise up fast. We get almost no background about her except that she's from Buffalo, and the movie begins as she marries a handsome fast-talking fellow (Gordon Westcott) who is referred to as an actor in the wedding scene, but is actually a fading vaudevillian. He and Chatterton wind up working for a carnival and she soon finds out that her husband is a scoundrel--and a bigamist. He leaves Chatterton while she's pregnant and nice guy alcoholic Frank McHugh offers to marry her. They're friends and the arrangement seems strictly for convenience. They join up with a traveling "medicine" show and Chatterton meets handsome George Brent, an engineer who is working as a taxi driver because he can't get a job (the Depression, you know). He joins the show and they wind up in something approaching a threesome (with McHugh as essentially a platonic friend) which goes along swell for a while, until a crazy German strong man (Robert Barrat) who had a thing for Lilly, escapes from an asylum and threatens to ruin everyone's lives.

The downward arc of the self-sacrificing woman is nothing new--for me, what was new in the film happened at the very end. Just as Brent has accepted an engineering job in New Mexico and is planning on leaving with Chatterton, the crazy German returns and throws McHugh out of a window, fracturing his spine. Chatterton (not surprisingly) decides she owes it to McHugh to stay with him. The more surprising thing is that Brent decides to turn down the job and stay with Chatterton, implying that their technically adulterous threesome will continue. Not exactly the happiest ending for anyone, but an interesting one that would have been banned by the code a year later. The acting was good all around, with Chatterton seeming particularly "modern," eschewing heightened melodramatics, for the most part. Brent is as good as I've ever seen him, and he looks at times like Ronald Reagan. McHugh, who I always like, is fine, as is Barrat and Guy Kibbee as the owner of the medicine show. Also with Grant Mitchell and Ruth Donnelly. Many published critics don't like this one, but I found it to be better than many similar films of the era and was glad to have seen it. [TCM]

Friday, April 09, 2004


This plays like a pre-Code, non-musical version of a "Gold Diggers" movie, or more precisely like a non-show biz STAGE DOOR, in its plot specifics and trajectories. We follow the stories of three young women who work for Madame Sonia (Hedda Hopper) at her high class beauty parlor. Madge Evans is Letty, who, after the death of her father, lives for a time with her friend Carol (Una Merkel). Eddie Nugent is Merkel's wisecracking kid brother who has the hots for Evans, but she falls into an affair with a married man (Otto Kruger). Merkel sets her sights on a rich older man, while Jane, another salon worker (Florine McKinney), hides her fling with the boss's son (Phililps Holmes). There are some soap opera complications which involve an unwanted pregnancy and suicide (and a great and very modern looking shot of the poor girl when she finds out that her unborn baby's father has fled after promising to marry her). Once that plot winds up, the rest of the film is considerably lighter in tone. Other notable cast members include May Robson as Merkel's mother and Alice Brady as Kruger's cold and unthinking wife. Nugent's obnoxious puns are sort of fun ("No harm will come to that, as the the man said about the crosseyed old maid!"). Even for a pre-Code film, the references to premarital sex are surprisingly clear, and not everyone who engages is such activity winds up punished. Actingwise, Evans and Kruger, the central couple, are the weak links, but the film is worth seeing. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 07, 2004


This MGM adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill coming-of-age comedy feels like it might have been the inspiration for MGM's Andy Hardy series which began two years later. The episodic film is set in a small American town and covers two important events during the summer of 1906: high school graduation and the 4th of July celebration. Eric Linden is Dick, the graduate with a slightly inflated (and melodramatic) sense of self. He wants to give a rabble-rousing anti-establishment speech but is flummoxed out of it by his well-intentioned father (Lionel Barrymore). Later, Linden tries to expose his girlfriend (Cecila Parker) to the erotic poetry of Swinburne, but gets in trouble with her father (Charley Grapewin). He also catches hell for reading Shaw and Wilde. In the climactic episode, he goes off with a college-age friend of his brother's on a double date and winds up sadder but wiser in the company of a "loose woman of the world" (Helen Flint). Other subplots are provided by a large supporting cast: Wallace Beery, who gets top billing, is an alcoholic uncle (played for sympathetic laughs) who can't quite keep a steady job without the help of Barrymore; Aline MacMahon is an aunt with an abiding affection for Beery; Spring Byington is the mother (coming off like a down-to-earth Billie Burke-type); Frank Albertson is the older brother; Mickey Rooney and Bonita Granville are the younger siblings. Linden is in a bit over his head with all the overacting pros around him, but both the character and the film have interesting edgy qualities that the Andy Hardy films lacked. The first Hardy film, A FAMILY AFFAIR, from 1937, featured Rooney, Barrymore, Linden, Byington, Parker, and Grapewin. This seems to have been Linden's last big major-studio role. [TCM]

Sunday, April 04, 2004


Along with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK, this is one of the great WWI movies. It's often described as "anti-war," but the reasons for fighting are not really questioned. I think in its time, it would have been seen more as a thought-provoking portrayal of how men deal (or fail to deal) with looking death in the face day after day. Based on a short story, this feels like a stage play, with almost all the action taking place in an isolated pilots' outpost in France. It's not made to seem particularly claustrophobic, but the men are far from the nearest town and any non-military social contact. Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are best friends and gung-ho pilots, and we see how the daily casualty reports and constant turnover of new inexperienced pilots gets to them after a while, blunting their bravado. They focus their fear into resentment at Neil Hamilton, their commanding officer, who doesn't have to fly himself but does have to make the daily decisions about whom to send up on missions in which, inevitably, some will not return. After Hamilton is reassigned, Barthelmess becomes commander and has to make the hard choices. When Fairbanks' kid brother (William Janney) arrives and gets sent up to certain death, the relationship between Barthelmess and Fairbanks is strained. In the end, Barthelmess gets Fairbanks drunk and substitutes for him on what amounts to a suicide mission. The film ends with Fairbanks as the new commander.

Most of the dialogue scenes feel a bit stagy but the aerial scenes are exciting and expertly handled (under Howard Hawks' direction). Even though Hamilton's anguish is a bit overdone, the rest of the acting is solid, especially Gardner James as Hollister, a pilot who is particularly affected by the deaths of his buddies. Frank McHugh has a small role. The song "Hurrah for the Next Man to Die" is used effectively throughout, indicative of the way most of the men give in to the idea of inevitable fate. Another interesting thematic element (also explored in other WWI films) is the admiration that both the German and British fliers have for each other, saluting a fallen enemy pilot has he spins down to certain death. The film was remade in 1938, using some of the same aerial footage, with very few changes in look or plot. The acting in the later version is more palatable to modern tastes, with Errol Flynn and David Niven as the two central friends, and Basil Rathbone as the commander--he comes off a bit less sympathetically than Hamilton, perhaps because of his stern screen persona. Both versions are worth seeing. [TCM]

Friday, April 02, 2004


Spoilers included!! A light, frothy B-thriller which feels like it was an attempt to build a series around Lew Ayres and Laraine Day. It's fun enough, but there were no sequels. Chicago's streets are deserted at night because of a string of axe murders; the killers are always caught at the scene, but they can't explain why they committed the crime--they can only speak gibberish to the police. One night, out-of-work actor Ayres saves Day from an axe attack; he appoints himself as protector to Day and sure enough there is a second attempt on her life, which he also foils. Ayres turns amateur detective and goes undercover, discovering all the captured killers are on file at the local asylum. It turns out that Basil Rathbone, a man Day had been engaged to in Paris some time ago, is masquerading as a dead psychiatrist in an attempt to get his money, and is "masterminding" the killings (of people who could stand in his way) through hypnosis or drugs--it's never clear how he does it. There's a nice noirish feel to much of the film, set mostly at night. The climax has that rushed B-movie feeling like they all just ran out of time. Ayres and Day (who appeard in several Dr. Kildare movies together) have a nice chemistry. Rathbone is a bit of a disappointment, mostly because he doesn't have much to do. Also with Russell Gleason (son of actor James Gleason) as a reporter. [TCM]


Another B-mystery with a "series" feel to it. William Lundigan is newspaper reporter Jim Moore (an awfully bland name for a character with sequel potential); Eddie Foy Jr. is Tripod, his photographer sidekick. On a transatlantic liner, they get wrapped up in some strange gongs-on involving a fake antique dresser which was made by the Black Parrot, a famous forger. It's discovered, however, that the dresser is *not* a fake. Back in the U.S., a stream of (supposedly) colorful characters passes through the house of Charles Waldron, the man who is trying to return the dresser to its rightful owner. It turns out there are letters in a drawer that a titled lady wants back; a Scotland Yard inspector (Paul Cavanaugh) enters the case and there are a couple of deaths before the climax, which involves a clever identity twist. Lundigan and Foy are OK as long as you only have B-movie expectations. Maris Wrixon is a bland love interest. Lundigan is handsome and affable, but not quite charismatic enough to have had Warners turn this into a series. [TCM]