Monday, May 31, 2004


Yesterday, I reviewed Warren William as Philo Vance; today, I'll look at Warren William as Perry Mason. The Mason movies are very different in tone and content from the more famous TV series with Raymond Burr. The TV episodes always climaxed in the courtroom, but in the two Mason films I've seen so far, we never see the courtroom; Mason is more a traditional movie detective, though played very nearly for laughs, rather like William played Sam Spade in SATAN MET A LADY. In this one, Mason is called in to investigate when the promoter of a beauty contest (the Lucky Legs of the title) runs off with the money; Mason finds his dead body and has to deal with a number of suspects, including the girl who won the contest (Patricia Ellis), her boss (Porter Hall) who has a crush on her and called Mason in the first place, and her boyfriend (Lyle Talbot) who is also a doctor, an important point when the murder weapon is discovered to be a scalpel. Instead of a courtroom ending, Mason gathers the suspects and narrates a flashback to show what really happened. Allen Jenkins is his usual reliable self as Mason's sidekick, and Genevieve Tobin is fine as faithful secretary Della Street. Warren does a good drunk act in the opening scene (imagine Raymnond Burr shambling about, drunkly shouting out witticisms) and Mary Treen (Tilly at the Savings & Loan in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) has a funny scene as Jenkins' wife. Also with Craig Reynolds (quite handsome as the con man murder victim), Barton MacLane, and Henry O'Neill. It's pretty clear from this movie that William's bland performance as Philo Vance was more a problem with the director or writers rather than with the actor; as Mason, William is loose, funny, and charming. [TCM]

Sunday, May 30, 2004


This is one in a series of movies featuring the sophisticated detective Philo Vance, created by author S. S. Van Dine. I've seen other Vance films with William Powell and James Stephenson; this one has Warren William, who is commonly held to be the weakest of the Vances. At a rather tense cocktail party at the palatial estate of the Stamm family, the man (George Meeker) who is going to marry the lovely Stamm daughter dives into the Dragon Pool and doesn't come out. He is found dead the next day somewhere else on the estate, with what appear to be dragon claw scratches across his chest. Philo Vance is called in on the case and hears rumors of jealousy, madness, and a mythical dragon that inhabits the pool. He solves the case with ease, in a running time of just over an hour. William is OK, but it's true that he doesn't come off as well as Powell. I think part of the problem is the writing--we get virtually no sense of Vance's personality or character; he is fleshed out much more in the earlier Powell film THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, and in the original novels. It's like doing a Hildegarde Withers movie without giving Edna May Oliver any insults to make to James Gleason. Eugene Pallette is good as a comic relief police sergeant who keeps saying, "My knowledge of criminology leads me to believe..." before being cut off by William. One of my favorite supporting men of the 30's, Lyle Talbot, is alternately stoic and suspicious as a rival for the affections of the Stamm girl, well played by Margaret Lindsay. Helen Lowell does a nice job as the crazy, cackling Stamm matriarch, and Robert Barrat is good as her drunken son, who collects exotic fish which are scattered about the house. The short running time works against the film to the degree that there isn't much time for character development, of Vance or anyone else. The room with dozens of fish bowls and tanks is cool, as is the concept of the Dragon Pool. The mystery itself is fairly easy to follow as it plays out. Ultimately, although I liked Powell better as Vance, I enjoyed this movie more than KENNEL because it was more atmopsheric and the story was easier to follow. It makes me want to see more Philo Vance movies, especially CASINO MURDER CASE, which I read and liked very much. [TCM]

Friday, May 28, 2004


Light satire based on a bestselling novel of the day about a Boston blueblood who finds he must begin to yield to the changing times and manners. Ronald Colman is excellent as the title character in a role he seems born to have played; Apley is a stuffy patriarch determined to run his family (and their personal lives) as he sees fit--the character reminded me occasionally of a cross between Mr. Banks of MARY POPPINS and Mr. Smith of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. He also has a great deal of influence in his moneyed neighborhood; he keeps election signs off the commons and questionable literature out of the library. Eventually, he butts up against the times. His daughter (Peggy Cummins) wants to marry a "radical" teacher, and his son (Richard Ney) falls in love with a girl who has the effrontery to come from somewhere other than Boston, though it has been arranged that he will marry a cousin (Vanessa Brown). Colman finds himself giving in here and there and learning a few lessons along the way, though in the end he refuses to give in the on the issue of his son's marriage. There are many witty lines throughout, some made even funnier by the delivery of Mildred Natwick as his even stuffier sister. When Cummins wants to leave the family to see her beau on Thanksgiving Day, Natwick says haughtily, "I never had a young man on Thanksgiving!" Her husband's reply is, "It's too late now." The bedrock of the family philosophy seems summed up by Natwick's remark, "Whenever I'm depressed, I remind myself that I'm an Apley." Other friends and relatives are nicely played by Richard Haydn (Uncle Max from THE SOUND OF MUSIC), Nydia Westman, and Charles Russell. Witty and charming. (Despite the title, Colman remains alive at the movie's end!) [FMC]

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

EMMA (1932)

This film has a moderately interesting plotline that eventually devolves into a rather musty melodrama. Marie Dressler plays the title character, a housekeeper and caretaker for the somewhat absent-minded inventor Jean Hersholt and his family after Hersholt's wife dies in childbirth. Most of the film takes place after Hersholt's children have grown; Dressler is still in high demand by the spoiled kids to solve their major and minor life problems. When she finally decides to take a long-planned vacation to Niagra Falls, Hersholt tags along and, along the way, he gets up the nerve to ask her to marry him. She does, but their happy days are brief as Hersholt dies soon after the wedding and the kids, who find it hard to believe that their father would have wanted to marry the woman they only think of as a housekeeper, conspire to prove that she forced the marriage, then killed him to get her hands on the family money. Richard Cromwell is the callow and effete son who winds up being Dressler's only ally, but as he comes rushing to be by her side in court, he winds up dead in a plane crash. Will Dressler prevail? Will the children overcome their snobbish and selfish natures to accept Dressler's side as truth? Among the kids are Myrna Loy and prolific B-player George Meeker. John Miljan, who often played slimy lawyers, is the DA. Watchable but slight, mostly recommended for fans of Dressler & Loy. [TCM]

Monday, May 24, 2004


Pre-Code filmmaking at its scandalous best, and one of Clara Bow's last movies. The somewhat confusing opening, set many years in the past, features a Old West wagon train leader accused of bringing on an Indian attack because of his immoral womanizing. Years later, his wife bears a child by an Indian father. The girl, named Nasa (Bow), who doesn't know the truth about her parentage, grows up to be wild and uncontrollable (we're to assume this is due to her "half-breed" nature). In one rather shocking scene, she flirts with the handsome, passive half-breed lad Moonglow (Gilbert Roland) and when he doesn't respond properly, she whips him across the face and chest. Her father (or the man she assumes is her father) sends her off to Chicago to be tamed at a girl's academy, but her rebellious nature cannot be overcome. A marriage is arranged with the rich but effeminate Tyrell Davis, but Bow counters by eloping with Monroe Owsley, though not before having a hair-pulling catfight with his fiancee, Thelma Todd. It turns out that Owsley has only married her to spite Todd, and their relationship goes downhill quickly, until he drinks himself almost to death. The pregnant Bow leaves him and later turns to prostitution, and her child dies in a fire while Mama is out making the rent money. There is more scandal and tragedy before Bow's dying mother finally tells her the truth about her father; learning this seems to be the one thing that "tames" Bow, and the film ends with Bow about to forge a bond of sorts (perhaps love but perhaps just affection) with dear old Moonglow.

This film is about as wild as 30's movies get. In addition to all the whoring and drinking and miscegenating, we even get a glimpse inside a Greenwich Village bar, supposedly a haven for "poets and anarchists," but actually full of gay customers and campy waiters. Early on, Bow is dressed in a tight white top which clearly shows that she's braless. There are a number of juicy lines. An unfaithful husband defends his wandering ways while he scolds his unfaithful wife: "I pay the bills, I'm allowed a little leeway." Just before the big fight, Thelma Todd says, "I suppose you know you broke up my home," and Bow replies, "I didn't know you were in a home; when did you get out?" A male escort tells Bow that she won't be happy until some man "beats the devil" out of her. The sexual and racial politics are certainly not "PC," but the movie is entertaining and provides an interesting look at silent screen siren Bow, who only made a handful of sound pictures before she retired at 28. [FMC]

Friday, May 21, 2004


Under this blandly generic title is a fairly interesting propaganda-romance-thriller with a few CASABLANCA-like touches, set in 1940 Paris. Joan Crawford is a snooty fashion plate who is the mistress of governmant man Philip Dorn; she loves her life of parties, high fashion, and being snobbish to the women who work at the dress shop she frequents. While she's gone on vacation, the Nazis invade Paris; when she returns, her pampered life changes when she finds herself being treated as an unwelcome guest in her own house, which the Nazis have taken over, kicking her downstairs (as in, where the help stay). She also slowly comes to believe that Dorn is a Nazi collaborator. One night, Crawford helps an American RAF pilot (John Wayne) escape detection, and through him she winds up signing on to help the Resistance. She takes a job at the dress shop and passes on information and money; there's a nice scene where she tries to get some hidden money out of the padded shoulders of a coat that collaborationist rich bitch Natalie Schafer (Lovey from "Gilligan's Island) wants immediately. There are nice plot twists along the way as Crawford helps get Wayne out of the country.

There's a very effective moment when the camera pans up in a darknened room to show long tables, lit by candles, put together in the shape of a swastika. There's also a cafe (like CASABLANCA'S Rick's) with a black singer (Ira Buck Woods) performing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" with a barbed reference to Hitler that the listening Nazis don't get. Reginald Owen is a possible double agent; Albert Basserman, John Carradine, and Howard Da Silva are various Nazi functionaries. Wayne, though top billed with Crawford, winds up mostly as a supporting player. Crawford is quite good, and she gets to wear lots of fancy gowns. Even though she once claimed to hate this film, I think it's one of her better efforts for MGM. [TCM]

Thursday, May 20, 2004


A long and talky comedy of manners and philosophy, aspiring to be something like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, but not quite making it. Cary Grant plays a labor activist at a local factory who winds up accused of arson and murder when the plant burns down and a foreman is missing and presumed dead. Grant thinks that the owner of the plant set the fire for insurance money, and that the foreman is in on the scheme and is alive and well somewhere; however, Grant can't prove anything and, knowing he won't get a fair trial, he escapes from jail and hides out in an empty house. It turns out that the house is being fixed up by Jean Arthur to rent to a vacationing law professor (Ronald Colman). Colman believes in the power of the letter of the law, and Grant thinks that the human aspect gets all too often overlooked in legal proceedings. Posing as a gardener, Grant engages Colman in some philosophical discussions and a friendship grows between them before the professor discovers Grant's true identity. Grant is soon threatened with lynching and Colman has to buy into Grant's ideas to save him.

Technically, both men are in love with Arthur, but it's the male-bonding relationship that is most important here. Unfortunately, neither Colman nor Grant seem at ease with their characters and Jean Arthur takes the acting honors. Rex Ingram plays Colman's servant; Glenda Farrell is a young woman with whom Colman clumsily flirts in order to get some information about the missing foreman; Lloyd Bridges and Leonid Kinsky have small roles, and an old vaudeville performer named George Watts has a very funny scene as a judge attending a baseball game with Colman and Arthur. There is also an amusing running gag about cooking borscht. Overall, however, not as light on its feet as it should be; it's like a screwball comedy with all the champagne fizz missing. [VHS]

Monday, May 17, 2004


Silly B-comedy directed by Busby Berkeley; he was a great and innovative chreographer but as a director, he tends toward the bland. John Shelton is an aspiring writer who thinks of himself as an undiscoverered literary genius. He gets involved with two unscrupulous fellows (Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth) who run a Western pulp magazine. They are just about to sell the magazine and leave the business when their only writer (Donald Meek) leaves them high and dry in an alcoholic daze (his condition is played for laughs here). Although Shelton thinks the Westens are below him, the editors get him to write an entire issue of stories in one day, with some help from a pretty secretary (Virginia Grey); they also extract money from him to keep the mag afloat until the sale. Farce ensues. In an interesting twist at the end, it turns out that Shelton is not a good literary writer but he's great at the pulps! Shelton is unattractive and uncharismatic, and most of the film is flat and tedious, although you can see Dekker and Butterworth trying hard. Reginald Owen, in a small role as Shelton's uncle, is a bright spot. The plot is basically an uncredited variation on George S. Kaufman's farce, "The Butter and Egg Man," which itself was made into a movie six times, most notably as AN ANGEL FROM TEXAS with Eddie Albert. [TCM]

Friday, May 14, 2004


Jean Cocteau wrote this adaptation of the Tristan and Isolde story. Jean Marais (Cocteau's muse and lover, and star of his BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) plays Patrice, a young man who lives a rather carefree life with his rich uncle Marc and assorted other family members, including Marc's sister and her wicked dwarf son (Pieral). Patrice sets out to find his uncle a wife and brings back Nathalie (Madeleine Sologne), who falls for Patrice, not the uncle. The dwarf puts poison in Patrice and Nathalie's drinks, but it's really a love potion she has brought with her from her guardian, and the two fall madly in love. The uncle goes through with the marriage to Nathalie and throws Patrice out; he falls for another woman, also named Nathalie (Junie Astor) but cannot forget his first love, with tragic results for all. As the beginning feels a bit like Beauty and the Beast, the ending conjures up Romeo and Juliet. Marais and Sologne are both high-cheekboned, blonde, Nordic beauties. Though seemingly set in modern times, the movie, especially at its climax, has a timeless, mythic look and feels like many of Cocteau's films--although the director of record isn't Cocteau but Jean Dellannoy. Pieral as the dwarf gives the best performance; Marais looks the part, but his acting is only so-so. [VHS]

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

A FREE SOUL (1931)

One of an astounding twelve movies that Clark Gable made in 1931, though this is remembered more for Lionel Barrymore's Oscar winning performance. Barrymore is a lawyer who has just gotten gangster Gable off on a charge of murder--it wasn't clear to me if we're supposed to think that Barrymore cheated or was just sharp as a tack. At any rate, Barrymore's "free soul" daughter (Norma Shearer) meets the dashing Gable and the two hit it off; their first date is marked by an assassination attempt against Gable! The family snubs Gable and isn't all that happy with Barrymore, mostly because of his drinking. When Barrymore finds out about his daughter's affair, he tries to force her to break it off. She agrees to leave Gable if her father will stop drinking, so they go off together on a long trip to the wilderness, accompanied only by Barrymore's faithful assistant, James Gleason. The trip brings father and daughter closer, but as soon as they return to civilization, Barrymore gets drunk, so Shearer goes back to Gable, who threatens her with violence if she tries to leave him again. Leslie Howard, an admirer of Shearer's, winds up killing Gable, and the last scene takes place in the courtroom as Barrymore makes one last heroic stand to save Howard. This scene is considered a tour de force for Barrymore, but I find it fairly typical for him--a mix of hamminess and solid acting. Shearer overdoes the facial expressions, as though she's still emoting for the silent screen, but she and Gable definitely have chemistry. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


Beautifully acted version of the classic John Steinbeck story. Burgess Meredith is a migrant farm worker who travels with his cousin, Lon Chaney Jr. Meredith is a philosophical type but also a realist; Chaney is a gentle but retarded giant of a man who occasionally forgets his own strength--he likes to pet small, soft things, like rabbits, but not realizing his strength, he sometimes goes overboard and hurts or kills his object of affection. The two are frequently on the run after Chaney unintentionally causes trouble. At the beginning of the movie, they find work on a ranch run by Bob Steele (later one of the Three Mesquiteers of B-Western fame), a cruel but weak man. The two become friendly with most of the ranch hands, and Meredith feeds the hopes of Chaney and others by spinning pipe dreams about living an easy life on a rabbit ranch. Eventually, Chaney gets caught between Steele and his unsatisified wife, Betty Field, and the two must go on the run again. Meredith, realizing things will never get better for or with Chaney, must decide between letting Chaney go to jail for life, or putting him out of his misery through mercy-killing. Although you do come to care about several of the characters, and the last few minutes are emotionally affecting, much of the movie feels more like a fable than a real-life story. This is Chaney's one great performance before he got mired in B-horror films. If you've only seen him in those movies, this will be a revelation. The cast also features Charles Bickford and Noah Beery Jr., and there is lots of human/animal symbolism, especially in a particularly sad incident involving an old man and his sick dog. I'm more a cat person than a dog person, but it still brought tears to my eyes, as did the ending. [DVD]

Sunday, May 09, 2004


Nowadays, many mainstream comedies have a dark edge, but in the early 60's, the black comedy in film was, I suspect, something fairly new. In this early example of the genre, Marcello Mastroianni plays a member of an old Siclian family which has fallen on hard times. He's stuck in a marriage with a woman (Daniela Rocca) who is constanly demanding attention and affection, and he finds himself in love with his 16-year-old cousin(Stefania Sandrelli) who lives just across the courtyard from him (and on whom more than one frustrated man spies). Just as it seems that she's interested in him, her father sends her off to a convent school, but Mastroianni is determined to have her eventually. Divorce was not legal in Sicily, but he realizes that the code of male honor would allow him to get rid of his wife by killing her if he caught her cheating on him, so he sets out to set up just such a situation. An old boyfriend of Rocca's (Leopoldo Trieste) turns up in town and Mastroianni helps them rekindle their old feelings, although the sexy maid almost derails the plans by setting her cap for Trieste herself. Further complications arise when we discover that Trieste's wife has a similar plan in mind. Even though some people do wind up dead, and some not as happy as they imagined they might be, the movie keeps a light tone throughout. Early on, Mastroianni imagines some scenarios in which his wife would drown in quicksand or get caught in the middle of a Mafia shootout, and he imagines what the judge will say at his future trial for murder. There's a fun reference to Mastroianni's previous film, LA DOLCE VITA--when the scandalous film comes to town, the entire populace shows up to watch it, including Mastroianni. This comedy of murder and morals won't seem shocking to today's viewers, but I imagine it must have been 40 years ago. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 05, 2004


Cecil B. DeMille's patented mix of sex, religion, and epic narrative works fairly well here, though at two hours, it's about 20 minutes too long. According to some sources, DeMille got a few historical details right but the movie puts entertainment over history (as Hollywood always does). Henry Wilcoxon is Richard the Lionheart, not a particularly noble king, who is anxious to get out of an arranged marriage with the sister of the King of France. His way out comes when a zealous old man known as the Hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) arrives from the Holy Land with stories of the barbarities of the Muslim invaders. Richard joins the Crusade because doing so releases him of any worldly vows that might stop him from going, such as his future marriage. Along the way, he agrees to marry the daughter of the King of Navarre, sight unseen, to get food for his army; assuming this to be just a ceremonial thing, he sends his minstrel (Alan Hale) to the wedding with his sword as a stand-in for him (this, too, apparently has some factual basis). However, when he gets an eyeful of Young, he is happy to be her flesh-and-blood mate. As the Christian army tries to force its way into Jerusalem, Young is kidnapped by the Sultan Saladin (Ian Keith), for whom she had expressed respect earlier. After some typical DeMille-style battles, a peace is achieved, partly through Young's diplomacy. Joseph Schildkraut is the villainous Conrad of Montferrat; Katharine DeMille (Cecil's adopted daughter) is the French princess and C. Henry Gordon is her father. Like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, this has scenes of spectacle alternating with scenes of awkwardly staged dialogue; the more intimate the scene, the more awkwardly it plays out. Wilcoxon and Young look their parts, but never truly seem interested in each other. Ian Keith as the somewhat sympathetic bad guy is the standout actor here. I got a nice chuckle out of the Christian slave girls with their incredibly long and shiny hair, but this is not a camp-heavy affair. [TCM]

Saturday, May 01, 2004


Long and fairly engrossing biographical epic with a lot of very familiar faces. Norma Shearer plays Marie, whom we first see as a young girl of royalty chosen to marry the heir to the throne of France, Louis XVI (Robert Morley). She's beautiful and full of life, he's chubby and awkward and, apparently, impotent. Much depends on the production of a son, and when none is forthcoming, there is nasty gossip aimed at Shearer. The current king's mistress, Madame DuBarry (Gladys George), sends Shearer a "gift" of an empty cradle, and Shearer then insults George in public; the King (John Barrymore) threatens to have the marriage annulled but he dies before he can arrange it. Shearer falls in love with a dashing Count (Tyrone Power) and soon bears a son--I wasn't sure if we were to infer that the son was sired by Power or that Morley's impotence was cured somehow by the King's death. An affair involving Shearer supposedly spending state money on an extravagant necklace while the French people are starving causes her to lose public sympathy, and when the revolution comes, the people's fury leads to the deaths of both Shearer and Morley. The political situation is never made very clear; despite the importance of the mood of the times, we get only a cursory sense of why she was the target of such wrath. The script does not demonize her and Shearer plays her quite sympathetically. She is especially good toward the end when she's thrown in prison and her son is taken from her. George is very good as DuBarry, and the strong supporting cast includes Joseph Schildkraut (as the conniving Duke of Orleans), Henry Stephenson, Reginald Gardiner, George Zucco, Anita Louise, Henry Daniell, and Cecil Cunningham. It's fun to hear Barrymore say, "After me, the deluge," but I waited in vain for Shearer to say, "Let them eat cake." Great costumes and sets; I imagine if this had been shot in color, it would have a stronger reputation today. [TCM]