Friday, July 30, 2004
This WWI drama is interesting but not terribly compelling; it feels like warmed-over Hemingway, specifically "The Sun Also Rises." It probably felt fresh back then but the weak acting and underplotted script make it something of a chore to sit through now. There is an effective opening montage of WWI battle scenes, then we follow the post-war experiences of a group of American fliers, all damaged in some way by the war, as they decide after their discharge to stay in Paris and become members of the Lost Generation. They spend most of their time drowning their sorrows in a number of bars, and hanging out with odd rich girl Helen Chandler. It's not clear what her problem is--is she drug-addled? Slightly retarded? Inbred? Or just a darker version of the whimsical heiresses who would crop up so often a few years later in screwball comedies? It's also not clear why she is attracted to the group, but they all share their boozy misadventures until the outside world catches up and the group begins to fall apart. Richard Barthelmess, the most traditionally solid of the bunch, has injured hands; David Manners, a bit neurotic, has an uncontrollable eye twitch; Johnny Mack Brown and Elliot Nugent are the other buddies, and they are all trailed around by rich twit Walter Byron, who has a thing for Chandler. There are some neat transitional shots and fluid camera moves, but the delivery of dialogue is off, with lines that should be casually tossed off instead landing with a leaden thud. There is some pre-Code language and a shot of nose-thumbing, and Chandler uses a nifty line to excuse herself from the table: "I'm taking a Chinese singing lesson"; I assumed it just meant she was going to the bathroom, but at least one critic thinks it's a reference to opium use. Worth seeing for fans of 30's movies, but it doesn't have much else other than its unusual atmosphere to recommend it. [TCM]
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Slowly, I am catching up on movies from the mid-to-late 60's that I heard about when I was growing up; since I was only 13 in 1969, I was really too young to have seen most of them when they were new (though my liberal-minded mother *did* take me to see BONNIE AND CLYDE when I was 12). That odd burst of idiosyncratic, psychedelic, sexy, and often impenetrable Hollywood movies didn't last long, but there is still a cultural aura about those films that makes them interesting to watch in the same way I find it fun to watch even the most routine pre-Code films of the early 30's, largely in order to get a idea of how popular culture was reflecting and affecting the times. This one is loosely based on Voltaire's "Candide," and may have been an influence on THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1970--reviewed 7/14/03) in that a central figure has a series of seemingly unrelated adventures which contribute to his or her education in the ways of the world.
In this film, Candy (Ewa Aulin), a young, blonde, and quite comely girl in her late teens, is thrust into the big bad world of older men who befriend and mistreat her. Her problems start with her befuddled father (John Astin) and her smoothly lecherous uncle (also played by Astin), and along the way she meets up with, among others, a lecherous poet (Richard Burton), a lecherous military man (Walter Matthau), a lecherous Mexican gardener (Ringo Starr, naturally!), and a lecherous guru (Marlon Brando). In all cases, she is used as an ego-boosting sex toy, though never in such a manner that you couldn't exactly call it rape. Aulin's empty-headed expression rarely changes, so we never know what she's thinking about her own debasement. I have no idea what to make of the opening and closing segments, which seem to imply that Aulin may just be a bundle of cosmic energy which has taken shape temporarily on Earth. I suspect we're not meant to think too hard about any of it. The stars are mostly wasted, with the exception of Richard Burton, who does a wonderfully funny turn as a hippie Dylan Thomas-type; no matter where he is, inside or out, a breeze is always blowing on his long hair and flowing cape. The best acting really comes from Astin in his dual role, but it's a singularly thankless role. There is some music by Steppenwolf, and a catchy closing theme done by the Byrds. The sets, costumes, and colors are more fun to pay attention to than the action of the film. Recommended only for die-hard fans of the period. [DVD]
Sunday, July 25, 2004
MURDER BY AN ARISTOCRAT (1936)
This pleasant B-thriller turned out to be sort of an unofficial entry in a series based on the character Nurse Sarah Keate, created by mystery writer Mignon Eberhart. She was played first in 1935 by Aline MacMahon in WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT (reviewed 4/24/04) and in 1938 by Ann Sheridan in THE PATIENT IN ROOM 18 (reviewed 3/9/02) . For this one, the character's name has been changed to Sally Keating and she's played by Marguerite Churchill, who bears a passing resemblance to Mia Farrow. I don't know for sure if Nurse Keating was the exact same literary character as Nurse Keate, but Eberhart gets screen credit for original story and the similarities between the character types and the set-up of the plots are strong. The 60-minute film is mostly enjoyable, though I didn't care much for Churchill who is by far the blandest of the three nurses. In the other films, her boyfriend is a cop but here, he's a doctor, played by Lyle Talbot, who doesn't really have much to do. The plot is a standard one, with relatives (gathered in a big old house), blackmail, and murder. The black sheep of the Thatcher family (William Davidson) is blackmailing everyone else for a big sum of money. There's a strong willed matriarch figure (though here, she's a spinster, so technically not a matriarch, I guess), a weak-willed drug addict, and a few other relatives. An attempt is made on the blackmailer's life; he is wounded and Churchill is sent out to the house in the middle of the night to care for him. She suspects the tale that the family tells of a gun-cleaning accident is fishy and she sees and hears many strange things before the blackmailer is actually killed later the next day, while no one else was home. Of course, the nurse cracks the case, without a little help from the cops. There are not a lot of other recognizable names in the cast, except for Claire Dodd as one of the relatives, though IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE's Mary Treen has a small role as a maid. [TCM]
Thursday, July 22, 2004
Cute little second-feature comedy with Lana Turner in her first starring role. The story begins in Hollywood, as dancing star Lee Bowman discovers that his movie partner is pregnant. A press agent (Roscoe Karns) talks the studio boss into running a national collegiate contest to find Bowman's next partner, for a movie called "Dancing Co-Ed." The trick is that Karns plants starlet wannabe Turner at a midwestern university (conveniently called Midwestern University) to be found by the studio judges. Karns' secretary (Ann Rutherford) goes along to help her with her school work. Richard Carlson is a student reporter who (in a far-fetched plot twist) suspects a studio plant and sets out to uncover her, never realizing that it's Turner, who deliberately gets to close to Carlson to throw him off her trail. Of course, the two start to fall in love for real and complications ensue. At 90 minutes, the movie is a little too long, with a middle section that feels padded, but the actors are all pleasant and the plot just twisty enough to keep your attention. Karns and Bowman are both particularly good, and Monty Woolley has a small role as a professor, but even better is Leon Errol, known mostly for his comedy shorts of the 30's and for the Mexican Spitfire movies of the 40's; here, he's Turner's loving father, a former vaudeville performer who has a very amusing scene pretending to be an actor who is pretending to be Turner's father (yes, I proofread that sentence--it's correct). Bandleader Artie Shaw, who would marry Turner in 1940, plays himself. Fun for Saturday morning viewing. [TCM]
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
HIPS, HIPS, HOORAY (1934)
The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey was quite popular in the 30's, going strong right up to Woolsey's untimely death (of kidney disease) in 1938. Today, however, they've been mostly forgotten. Assuming from some of what I'd read that they were mostly a poor man's Marx Brothers, I avoided their movies on the rare occasions when one would crop up on Turner Classic Movies. Now that I've seen one, I must admit I'm sorry I've ignored them for so long. As is the case with most Marx Brothers movies, the plot isn't the most important element, but here it is anyway: Two con men who sell flavored lipsticks wind up working for a cosmetics company (Maiden America, which we see on an office door in the first shot of the movie and which gave me my first chuckle) and wooing two female employees, one an executive and one a model. The boys accidentally wind up with a briefcase filled with stocks and bonds and the cops think they stole it, so they go on the lam at the same time that a nationwide car race (in which the beauty company has a car) is going on. There is also an investment banker hanging around who's supposed to be working for Maiden America but is actually working for a rival company and scamming our heroines. The end of the race serves as a climax for the contest, the scam, the problem with the cops, and the romances.
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey do remind me of the Marxes--there's a letter dictation scene right out of ANIMAL CRACKERS--if Harpo talked and was medicated, and Groucho was less self-assured, but they also seem a bit like Abbott and Costello, two average guys trying to make a living, get through an adventure by dumb luck, and get a couple girls along the way. I liked the fact that both men were taken seriously as romancers; frequently, Abbott and Costello have girl friends, but I could never buy that any woman in her right mind would be carnally attracted to either one of them. The same goes for the Marxes (except Chico--Harpo always loved the chase, but I thought he wouldn't quite know what to do with the girl once he caught her; Chico definitely would). Wheeler and Woolsey aren't particularly good looking, but their banter and their physicality help to make their affairs believable. It's a pre-Code movie and there is a lot of lusty innuendo, including naked models with their breasts strategically covered by make-up bottles, and a fair amount of kissing and touching between the couples. There are even a couple of "accidental" kisses between the two men. A mildly randy song, "Just Keep on Doin' What You're Doin'," crops up a few times and is now stuck in my head. There is also some Freudian stuff with Wheeler's ever-present banana and Woolsey's cigar. Another plus is a lot of improbable special-effects humor, most of which (including a race car with helium wheels) comes off pretty well. There's even a Kansas twister five years before OZ. Thelma Todd and Dorothy Lee are the women. Ruth Etting (the singer Doris Day portrayed in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME) has what amounts to a cameo as herself singing a song in the opening scene; George Meeker makes a good slimy bad guy; Bobby Watson has a small bit as a flamboyant dance director. Perhaps the best thing is that the movie is short and the individual comic bits never go on so long that they drag (as a few of the later Marx Brothers bits did). Even if a particular bit wasn't working for me, I knew they'd move on quickly. I'll be watching the TCM schedule for more of this team. [TCM]
Sunday, July 18, 2004
I read about this movie in "A Song in the Dark," a very good book by Richard Barrios on early Hollywood musicals, and then it cropped up on Fox Movie Channel. I was glad to be able to see it, even though it proved to be a disappointment, with a slow pace, indifferent acting, and, despite some songs by the Gershwins, unmemorable music. Janet Gaynor, one of the biggest box-office draws in the country at the time, is Scottish lass Heather who comes to the U.S. by ship to live with her uncle. Along the way, she bonds with a group of working-class immigrants (through music and dancing, just like DiCaprio does in TITANIC) including the handsome Russian Sascha (Raul Roulien). She also meets rich American Charles Farrell and his valet (El Brendel). Once she's landed, Gaynor is put back on the ship because her uncle can no longer afford to host her, but she manages to sneak off the ship winds up living in Farrell's mansion, being taken care of by Brendel. Gaynor is sweet on Farrell, but he has a bitchy fiancee (Virginia Cherrill) so Gaynor considers marrying Roulien, but Hollywood cross-class romance wins out in the end.
Farrell's voice is oddly high and light and doesn't match his handsome looks; Gaynor projects an appealing winsomeness, but her Scottish accent is terrible. Brendel's appeal escapes me completely; despite a Spanish-sounding name, he was an American vaudevillian who acted with a heavy Swedish accent, and he ends up seeming like a dumbed-down Chaplin figure. There is a good dream sequence in which Gaynor imagines what it will be like to land at Ellis Island ("Welcome to the Melting Pot"), and Brendel's high point is with the amusing song "Blah Blah Bla" (and in fact, Gershwin later turned the piece into his Second Rhapsody). The movie is tolerable, but mostly worth watching as a historical oddity, a movie musical done as Hollywood was, by trial and error, inventing the genre. [FMC]
Thursday, July 15, 2004
Careful, this isn't the Hitchcock classic about the "Black Widow" strangler--that's SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Instead, it's an MGM B-comedy/thriller that, though not as creepy or suspenseful as Hitchcock, is still quite entertaining. Ricardo Cortez is a wealthy advertising man with an even wealthier aunt (Constance Collier). He wants to marry Virginia Bruce, an actress, but she's gotten tired of waiting for him to make his move, so she's agreed to marry play producer Bradley Page, whom we know from the get-go is a no-good bastard. However, Betty Furness is also set to marry Page, and a lovely nightclub singer (Isabel Jewell) also slips in and out of the proceedings. Page winds up dead, and Bruce and Furness are the primary suspects. Collier, an eccentric woman who hasn't left her home in 20 years, doesn't initially approve of Cortez marrying Bruce, but soon Collier's on the girl's side and she gets involved (with Cortez and the police) in trying to clear Bruce's name by finding the real killer. Collier, in her late 50's, was making her sound film debut (many years later, she played the stuffy matron in Hitchcock's ROPE) and she's quite funny and energetic; she's mostly absent from the middle of the film, but she dominates the last half-hour. She's especially good bantering with the police inspector (Edward Brophy); their relationship is more interesting than that of Cortez and Bruce. Cortez is OK--he looks *weird*, more like Basil Rathbone than himself. Maybe it's just the haircut, but I'd swear that he's wearing a false nose! All the young women are fine, especially the lovely Bruce, whom I know mostly as the title star of that odd little 40's comedy THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Regis Toomey is a gossip hound who tags along with Cortez; Ivan Simpson has a couple of fun moments as Collier's butler. The stormy night finale is great fun, definitely worth sticking around for. [TCM]
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
I have not been a big fan of Marion Davies, perhaps partly because I haven't seen much of her. I didn't care for this Davies vehicle, but I must admit that Davies was good, the best thing in the film. She had spark and life (unlike in GOING HOLLYWOOD or PAGE MISS GLORY, the only other Davies sound films I've seen) and she sometimes looked and acted like Joan Crawford (with a hint of Bette Davis once or twice). The silly plot involves a dragged-out romantic triangle between two old friends (Davies and Billie Dove) and a rich playboy (Robert Montgomery). Davies and Dove grew up together in the tenements; Dove strikes out on her own and gets a lucrative job in the Follies, thanks to some "sugar daddy" contacts. Soon, Dove is happy as a featured chorus performer, being kept in fine style by Montgomery, and she renews her friendship with Davies, who herself winds up in the Follies and attracted to Montgomery. This leads to bad feelings all around (including a couple of rather fun "catfights") and a bizarre tragic on-stage accident which leaves one person crippled and the other two anxious to do the right thing.
Apparently both Davies and Dove were Ziegfeld Follies girls early in their careers, but the movie, despite having a theatrical setting, doesn't give anyone the chance to show off much in the way of singing or dancing talents. I do like the way that the Follies numbers are shown mostly from backstage or on-stage rather than from the audience, but don't watch expecting any Busby Berkeley flights of fancy. Montgomery is less irritating than usual in his role as obnoxious cad, but I was never convinced that he was in love with anyone--which might be the point, though the romantic angle is played so obliquely that I'm not sure. The best performance after Davies comes from James Gleason, as Davies' father, who looked incredibly young and got to show more range than his later parts usually called for. Zasu Pitts, as Davies' sister, was far less "ditzy" than usual; Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan) is fine in a small role as Pitts' husband and Sarah Padden nicely underplays the pathos-filled role of Davies' mother. One fun bit towards the end has Davies and Jimmy Durante (playing himself) doing a parody of Garbo and Barrymore in GRAND HOTEL (both films were directed by Edmund Goulding), but it's not fun enough to save the film. [TCM]
Sunday, July 11, 2004
This is one of those government-encouraged propaganda movies of WWII that glorified Russia and its people when they were our allies; a few years later, when the Russians were our sworn enemy, films like this got their creators in trouble for being "reds." This one is mediocre at best--basically a lethargic romance with a little bit of wartime action thrown in at the end. Robert Taylor plays (unconvincingly) an American orchestra conductor who, while on tour in Russia just before the war, falls in love with a Russian girl (Susan Peters), essentially a peasant who can play classical piano like nobody's business. They marry but then war breaks out; he tries to arrange to stay with her, but others convince him that he can do more for the cause if he travels the globe. Peters stays on as a resistance fighter. Will they ever be reunited? The whole thing feels rather phony from start to finish, including the tepid romance. Robert Benchley is a brief bright spot in the proceedings as Taylor's manager. John Hodiak is a man named Boris (and believe it or not, there's also a character named Natasha!) and other familiar faces include Felix Bressart (Jimmy Stewart's buddy in SHOP AROUND THE CORNER), Michael Chekhov (the old doctor in SPELLBOUND), and a young Daryl Hickman (whose brother Dwayne was Dobie Gillis on TV). Pretty much worthwhile only as a historical oddity that helped get its screenwriters (Richard Collins, Guy Endore, and Paul Jarrico) blacklisted. [TCM]
Wednesday, July 07, 2004
If NIGHT AND DAY was the bottom of the barrel as far as whitewashed showbiz bio musicals, THE JOLSON STORY is pretty close to the top. This has everything the Cole Porter film didn't have: a strong leading performance, good supporting players used well, and a string of fun production numbers. Larry Parks plays Jolson, born Asa Yoelson, the son of a cantor who decides he'd rather sing in burlesque houses than in synagogues. When he's young (and played by 17-year-old Scotty Beckett) he is befriended by vaudevillian William Demerest. They travel the country doing an act (part of which involves Jolson whistling instead of singing when his voice changes) and when Jolson grows up (Parks), he strikes out on his own as a blackface minstrel. He gets a part in a Broadway show but his natural talent (and hamminess) make it hard for him to stay in the background and soon he is a breakout star, eventually becoming one of the biggest sensations in show business. He meets the star of the latest Ziegfeld protege (Evelyn Keyes, playing a fictionalized version of Ruby Keeler), marries her, and seems to have a happy family life. Later, they both retire to the country life but Jolson is clearly not happy doing nothing and when the opportunity presents itself to return to show biz, he does, though it means losing his wife (in an awkward, ambiguous closing scene).
Parks looks nothing like Jolson but has lots of energy and does a great job lip-synching to vocals which were newly recorded by the real Al Jolson. Demerest, who remains a business partner and friend to Jolson for life, gives a nicely fleshed-out performance; both actors were nominated for Oscars. Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne are very good as Jolson's parents. Beckett is also good, though he doesn't get to stick around for long. Many of the songs are ones that I heard my parents singing around the house when I was growing up: "After the Ball," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "You Made Me Love You," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," and of course Jolson's signature song "Mammy." We see Parks recreate several blackface numbers--I wish I understood what the appeal of blackface minstrel music was--but we never see him as Jolson in his biggest hit, THE JAZZ SINGER. It's mentioned but not shown, perhaps because Jolson's original performance would still have been in the memories of most moviegoers in 1946. Dramatically lightweight, but far more entertaining than the Cary Grant/Cole Porter fiasco that came out the same year. The DVD print is nicely restored, with great color, though perhaps a bit heavy on the yellow-gold tones. [DVD]
Monday, July 05, 2004
To prepare for the new Cole Porter biopic DE-LOVELY, with Kevin Kline as Porter, I watched this earlier version of his life starring Cary Grant. Many people criticize this movie for its almost total fictionalization of Porter's life, especially the ignoring of Porter's homosexuality, but that's a given for a Hollywood biography, especially back in the classic movie era. What's worse is that the movie is boring and indifferently acted, and even the production numbers that are usually the big draw in these show biz biographies are no fun. Grant plays Porter as a law student at Yale who has to break it to his grandfather (Henry Stephenson) that he's quitting the law to become a songwriter. Egged on by law professor Monty Woolley (played by himself) who has show biz ambitions of his own, Grant leaves Yale to chase his dream; he becomes a soldier in the war, is wounded, and marries a family friend (Alexis Smith) who just happened to have enlisted overseas as a nurse. He writes a couple of popular songs, then makes his name as a Broadway tunesmith. The demands of Grant's career alienate Smith, who leaves him. At the height of his fame, he has a riding accident which shatters his legs and, despite dozens of operations, he never fully recovers the use of his legs, but the accident does bring his wife back.
Grant seems very uncomfortable as Porter, in somewhat the same way he seemed uncomfortable as the angel in THE BISHOP'S WIFE, but in WIFE that discomfort worked for the part (an angel uncomfortable with his yearnings for a mortal woman). Here, we're left with a character who seems to be sleepwalking through his life, who expresses very little emotion about his music, about his wife and friends, even about his tragic accident. Smith and Woolley are fine, though underused, and Jane Wyman peps up the movie occasionally as a singer who helps popularize Grant's songs. Porter's great music is wasted in stultifying production numbers that never build up any energy. Mary Martin (also playing herself) has a nice bit singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and Woolley gives a droll rendition of "Miss Otis Regrets," but the movie totally wastes great songs like "Begin the Beguine," "In the Still of the Night," "Just One of Those Things," and most unforgivably, the title song. It feels like Warners was trying to compete with MGM in the glossy musical-bio field, but there really was no comparison. [TCM/DVD]
Friday, July 02, 2004
To get through this, I had to imagine it as a remake of THE SCARLET EMPRESS done as a TV sitcom. Tallulah Bankhead plays Russian ruler Catherine the Great like a bored but horny CEO. Just as she has dismissed the current Commander of the Palace Guards due to a lover's spat, young and hunky William Eythe arrives, after riding three days, to warn her of a rumored coup. Bankhead is impressed and keeps him around, raising his rank every day or so until he is the new Commander. However, the Empress doesn't know that Eythe is engaged to Anne Baxter, a lady-in-waiting at the court; when Bankhead finds out, all hell breaks loose. Charles Coburn is Bankhead's faithful Chancellor; Vincent Price has a small role at the beginning and end as a French diplomat; Grady Sutton has a funny bit as a "hillboy" from the Urals. Also with Mischa Auer, Sig Ruman, and Eva Gabor (though I didn't notice her). Eythe is nicely packed into his uniform and Bankhead takes notice. Generally, the direction is lackluster and the humor bland, and all concerned seem a little embarrassed, but Price has a funny line about sneaking around in secret passages: "You meet the best people coming out of bookshelves." [FMC]