Thursday, September 30, 2004

End of Summer Catch-Up
Short takes on a few films:

THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939): This movie has remained famous, and is always associated with Don Ameche, but it's a fairly bland film and though Ameche is serviceable, this is far from his best movie role. It's a slow and sober account of Bell's life, from his early days as an inventor who also teaches deaf children to his invention of the telephone. Charles Coburn is a rich man who hires Ameche to teach his daughter (Loretta Young); she and Ameche fall in love, and Coburn provides backing for Ameche's inventing career. Henry Fonda is Watson, Ameche's assistant and recipient of that famous first phone call, when Ameche spills chemicals on his lap and calls out for help. There are some good supporting players, including Gene Lockhart, Spring Byington, and Harry Davenport, but none get a chance to shine. [FMC]

NORTHERN PURSUIT (1943): Adventurous spy story set in Canada with Errol Flynn as a Mountie who seems to turn traitor but actually goes "underground" to track German spy Helmut Dantine. Along with Flynn's girlfriend (Julie Bishop), they all head into uncharted territory to piece together a bomber to be used to attack America. There are some good effects, including an avalanche and a sub breaking through the ice in Hudson Bay. John Ridgely is a Mountie who is killed by the Nazis; Gene Lockhart has one of his few bad guy roles here and he's quite good. Overall, nothing special, though it moves along nicely and Flynn is his usual reliable self. [TCM]

SOUTH OF SUEZ (1940): Average exotic melodrama. George Tobias is a greedy diamond owner who fires his foreman, George Brent, after he sees Brent in a compromising situation with Tobias' wife (Lee Patrick), an ex-girl friend of Brent's. Then Tobias tries to cheat kindly old Miles Mander out of a land claim, and Brent takes Mander's side. When a particularly valuable diamond is found on Mander's property, Tobias kills Mander and pins it on Brent, who escapes, gets a new identity, and winds up involved with Mander's daughter (Brenda Marshall). Justice is eventually done. Like BELL above, this has a potentially interesting supporting cast, with Cecil Kellaway, Eric Blore, and James Stephenson, though they aren't given much to do. The beginning sets up a steamy atmosphere, like in Bette Davis' THE LETTER, but when the action leaves the tropics, so does the atmosphere. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Some sources describe this pre-Code soap opera as being about a woman's struggle to become a doctor, but that's all over with by the beginning of the film. Kay Francis is the title doctor, who graduates with good friend Lyle Talbot; they go into practice together, but his drinking gets the better of him and after she saves his ass by operating for him when he's smashed, they go their separate ways (even though she's in love with him). Talbot marries a woman whose father is politically powerful and he gets tangled up in some shady affairs. Francis sets up a successful pediatric practice with Glenda Farrell (whose character's name is Glenda Carroll--an inside joke?). Francis and Talbot meet up again (she's on vacation, he's running from a potential scandal), become lovers, and Francis bears a child out of wedlock. Her child soon dies from an infantile paralysis epidemic on board a ship and she considers suicide--can Talbot or Farrell bring her back to her senses? The most interesting thing here is the matter-of-factness with which Francis tells Farrell that she's going ahead and having her baby. It's seen as a positive thing, but a year later, under the Code crackdown, this spin would not have been possible. Una O'Connor is a shipboard mother; Thelma Todd is Talbot's wife. Sidney Miller has a small role as a Jewish teenager whose depression over the state of the world is played for laughs, as Woody Allen would do years later in ANNIE HALL. Francis gets a Bride of Frankenstein streak of white in her hair after her baby's death. She and Talbot are fine, but it's the subject matter that kept me watching. [TCM].

Friday, September 24, 2004

Edgar G. Ulmer Day on TCM

Leonard Maltin calls Edgar G. Ulmer a "remarkably resourceful B-movie director whose works often transcended their budgetary and artistic limitations." He spent most of his heyday toiling away for PRC, a Poverty-Row studio known for producing sub-B movies very quickly (sometimes in a week or less) and very cheaply. Ulmer is remembered today primarily for two movies: THE BLACK CAT (1934), a stylish Universal horror film which was the first to pair Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, and DETOUR (1946), an ultra-cheapie film noir that does, in fact, transcend its circumstances of production to become a minor classic. However, on the evidence of a number of films that Turner Classic aired last week during a 100th birthday salute to Ulmer, those films were more or less flukes. Most of the rest of his oeuvre doesn't stand the test of time. I've written before about STRANGE ILLUSION and BLUEBEARD, and DETOUR deserves its own entry in the future; what follows are some notes about of a few of the other films on TCM.

TOMORROW WE LIVE (1942) has Ricardo Cortez as a underworld figure nicknamed The Ghost because he cheated death twice (and has bullets lodged near his brain and heart that he knows could kill him at any time). He keeps people under his thumb through blackmail, as with old-timer Emmett Lynn, who runs a desert diner that is largely a front for Cortez's gang of hoodlums. Lynn's daughter, Jean Parker, comes home from college for a visit and Cortez is taken with her, despite the fact that she has a finace, professor turned solider William Marshall. A triangle of sorts develops, with predictable results. Cortez, in the twilight of his career but still with a commanding presence, is very good, Parker is OK, and there is at times a noirish sensibility at play, but the film mostly resembles a TV drama. The overly loud background music is a mood killer.

ST. BENNY THE DIP (1951) wants to be a Capra movie (like LADY FOR A DAY). Three grifters on the run from cops after pulling a scam wind up in disguise as clergymen; trying to stay clean under the watchful eyes of the neighborhood cops and a couple of real men of the cloth, they reopen an old mission for the homeless and wind up getting reformed by their work. The cast is promising, a notch above Ulmer's usual actors: Dick Haymes, Roland Young, and Lionel Stander are the con men, and former child star Freddie Bartholomew, in his last movie role, is one of the real ministers. They are all fine, but everything else about the movie is hard to take, especially the slapdash writing and awkward camera set-ups. There are some New York City exteriors (or fake exteriors) that look good--one shot even reminds me of a scene in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN. Nina Foch, who somehow wound up in this cheapie the same year she was in the Oscar-winning AMERICAN IN PARIS, is wasted in an underwritten role. Dick Haymes gets a song and Young is good as always, if a looking a little weary--he died two years later.

THE LIGHT AHEAD (1939), in Yiddish, is the best of the batch. The plot concerns the relationship between a crippled boy (David Opatoshu) and a blind girl (Helen Beverly) who live in a Russian village; they are in love but too poor to marry. A parallel plot involves a bookseller (Isadore Cashier) who wants the town to spend 100,000 rubles from its treasury on cleaning up a cholera-ridden river and bringing a doctor to town, but the council wants to spend the money elsewhere and let God take care of the townspeople's health. In the end, the town foots the bill for the marriage of the boy and girl (in a cemetery at midnight!) because of an old folk belief that such a ritual will rid the town of illness. Beverly is unhappy that she will be forever known as a Cholera Bride, and the bookseller helps them "escape" after the wedding to go live in a nearby town that is more "rational" and modern. Opatoshu as Fishke the Cripple is sweet-natured, with soulful eyes, and gives the best performance in any of these Ulmer films. This movie, though probably done even cheaper than the others, looks better, with some Caligari-like sets, and in general the acting and writing is a notch above as well. This is the one to seek out. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


I've never read the scandalous novel this film was based on, but I do remember sneaking it down from my parents' bookshelves one day and looking for the "good parts." Most of those parts didn't make it to this movie, but it's still a surprisingly effective melodrama about the secrets and passions that lie simmering just below the surface of a small New England town in the 1940's. It's very episodic, so the best way in is to approach it through the characters. Lana Turner is Constance McKenzie, a respectable widow who owns a dress shop and is raising a daughter, Diane Varsi. Turner has a weird thing about sex--one discussion between mother and daughter threatens to turn into a scene from CARRIE with Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek. Hope Lange is a poor girl who lives in a shack on the outskirts of town; her mother is Turner's cleaning lady and her stepfather (Arthur Kennedy) is a drunken brute who somehow manages to keep a job as janitor at the high school; Lee Philips, the new principal, gets interested in Turner, even though she comes on like an ice queen. Leon Ames is Mr. Harrington, the town big shot; Barry Coe is his frat-boy son (except that he joins the Army instead of going to college) and he has the hots for Terry Moore, the town slut. Russ Tamblyn is Norman, a neurotic mama's boy, and although he's stand-offish, he comes off as much healthier than most of the rest of the town's young people. Lloyd Nolan is the crusty old doctor with a heart of gold who delivers the movie's two main messages at the climax: Don’t believe everything you hear, and take care of your neighbors.

Most of the plotlines have to do with love, sex, and gossip: Turner hears gossip about her daughter swimming naked with Tamblyn and won't believe Varsi when she says it's not true; Kennedy rapes his stepdaughter and she winds up pregnant; Ames does not approve of his son's dalliance with Moore because of her reputation. There is a murder which becomes the center of the film's last third and helps to bring the moral messages into focus. The movie looks gorgeous, as good if not better than Douglas Sirk's glossy soap operas of the 50's, with some lovely Maine locations in the background. The actors are all just as sexy, handsome, and plain as they need to be, the plainest being Peg Hillias as the nastiest of the town gossips. Also in the cast are Mildred Dunnock as a frustrated teacher and David Nelson (of Ozzie and Harriet fame) as a soldier. Worth seeing, though it did make me want to see what ABC did to it when they turned it into TV's first prime-time soap opera in 1964. [DVD]

Sunday, September 19, 2004


A vehicle for the popular 1930's child star Jackie Cooper; this is my first Cooper movie and maybe my last. The 10-year-old is not bad but he is a bit whiny and his crying scenes, which must have seemed effective to audiences of the time, don't wear so well. The movie is a kind of forerunner of the after-school specials of the 70's. We first see Cooper and his quite handsome older brother (Maurice Murphy) spending a summer vacation in the field with their father (Lewis Stone), an archeologist. When the boys go back to their mother, they meet their new stepfather (Conrad Nagel), a rather stuffy doctor who has no experience with children. Nagel tries hard to be a good father figure, but he is much stricter than Stone and soon Cooper starts to rebel by being a pest to everyone and constantly getting in trouble. Stone, apparently legally restrained from visiting his children except for the summer month when he has custody, arranges a secret meeting with Cooper in an attempt to get the boy to settle down, but Cooper winds up running away one evening and drifting down a river; Murphy, against Nagel's orders, goes out to find him and is critically injured when his canoe hits a barge. Nagel saves his life and Stone, who was about to kidnap Cooper, realizes that the stepfather is a good egg after all. An even-handed, if hollow, attempt to deal with the issue of divorce; no one is made out to be a villain and everyone winds up accepting the inevitable changes. The mother (Lois Wilson) is an oddly passive figure due to a combination of weak writing and ho-hum acting--she's the only character whom I feel has little at stake in the situation. Some web site reviewers of the film claim that Stone is too permissive and that Cooper realizes at the end that he needs Nagel's discipline, but I have no idea where they get that from. It is a little strange that, compared with Nagel, the much older Stone comes off more like a grandfather than a father. Louise Beavers is the maid and Jean Parker is a love interest for the older boy. [TCM]

Thursday, September 16, 2004


This wonderful pre-Code film is practically an archetypal example of the kind of film they don’t make any more: the steamy tropical melodrama involving sex, crime, betrayal, and fabulous fashions. ONE WAY PASSAGE and RED DUST may be better films, but this is more fun. In Rangoon, Kay Francis is the lover of Ricardo Cortez, a handsome but good-for-nothing gunrunner who is in debt up to his eyeballs. In order to get help from slimy nightclub owner Nick (Warner Oland), Cortez goes up river to sell guns, leaving Francis with Oland; he forces her to become a "hostess" (a classy prostitute) at his club. She makes good at her trade, dressing in slinky silver lame and calling herself Spot White--though we hear one man suggest that she should go by "Spot Cash." Head cop Reginald Owen tries to deport her, but she blackmails him, leaving Rangoon but taking a chunk of cash from him. On a boat to Mandalay, looking to escape her past, Francis strikes up a friendship with doctor Lyle Talbot, who seems like a nice guy, but has a drinking problem. Suddenly, Cortez shows up on the run from the law and threatens to derail Francis' future happiness. The old Francis might have been dragged down by Cortez, but the new Francis figures out how to deal with him, once and for all.

Francis' lisp is quite noticeable throughout ("Wangoon," "tomowwow") but she's lovely and sexy and quite believable in her various transformations. She has great chemistry with both Cortez and Talbot, and she’s a knockout in various shiny outfits. One of her best scenes involves her figurative bitchslapping of police commissioner Owen. Michael Curtiz directed, and the beginning feels like a dry run for CASABLANCA, as the camera drifts slowly around the assorted clientele at Nick's nightclub (but instead of someone like Bogart running the saloon, it's someone like Sydney Greenstreet). Ruth Donnelly is wasted in a small supporting role of little consequence, but she gets off a great line when she complains that her husband won't let her wear sexy clothes because they make her look "nude--like a wet seal." Francis sings "When Tomorrow Comes," twice clearly dubbed by a non-lisping singer, but once it seems to be her own voice. The movie came out in early 1934 and the ending, which lets a murderer off the hook, would not have been possible just a few months later under the newly enforced Production Code. Well acted, nicely shot, and lots of fun. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


This odd little B-comedy/drama presents some strange lessons in child rearing, sportsmanship, and "wife taming," most of which would be seen as rather scary lessons today. The film is presented in two distinct "acts": the first sets up the disintegration of the marriage of Thomas Mitchell and Barbara O'Neil. They seem happy, but we see that O'Neil is a fairly passionless person, very concerned with calm surfaces and not willing to fight for what should be hers, in sports (where she's consistently happy to take second place) or in her marriage. Mitchell has just cut things off with his current mistress, Mona Barrie, but O'Neil catches him in a compromising position with Barrie and assumes the worst. Mitchell gets mad at his wife for not being madder at him, seemingly not willing to fight for him, and they split, with O'Neil getting custody of their son. The second act begins ten years later with the son (Wayne Morris) a pre-med tennis player at Yale--we're to think he's *too good* of a sport when we see him deliberately throw a tennis match because of what he thinks is an unfair call in *his* favor. After the game, he rekindles a friendship with Priscilla Lane (Barrie's daughter) and the next thing you know, he lets her talk him into leaving Yale, getting a quickie marriage, and going into business for himself by buying a washed-up soap manufacturing company. Things spiral downward for Morris, to the point where his wife slips into an affair with her ex-fiance (Dick Foran) and his own father won't give him a job after his soap company fails. In the end, Morris (with the tacit permission of virtually the entire cast) gives Lane a black eye and a ferocious spanking, which, of course, she likes (and has been angling for) because it shows her that her man is finally really a man!

Even though the domestic violence of the last scene is played mostly for laughs (with Lane fighting back and blacking Morris' eye as well), it's still a creepy and jaw-dropping scene; the spanking takes place in front of all the assembled parents and in-laws, and clearly Lane, who was just about to indulge in some extramarital sex with Foran, wants some passion out of Morris. In a way, of course, it's a clever reversal of the scene that ended Mitchell's marriage, but it still leaves a bad taste and makes it difficult to recommend this film for today's audiences. Morris is handsome and hunky, and it's a relief that even though his character is supposed to be a mama's boy (with O'Neil flat-out accused of breeding the manhood out of him), he isn't played as sissified or gay or weak, just confused and misguided. Barrie has a passing resemblance to Kay Francis, who would have been good in the part. John Litel is Barrie's patsy of a husband. It is fun to see Mitchell and O'Neil paired up here, just a year before they would play Scarlett O'Hara's parents in GONE WITH THE WIND. As with many B-movies, the writing could be stronger; the parents are built up fairly well, but Morris and Lane's characters are both inconsistent, acting the way they do just because the script calls for it. One funny line has Mitchell expressing anger over the family's passive style of arguing: "There won't be any fight--this is just a family affair--adverbs at 20 paces." [TCM]

Sunday, September 12, 2004


The second movie that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked on together is a surprisingly light spy thriller, set in the first months after England declared war on Germany, that occasionally calls to mind Hitchcock (39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES). Conrad Veidt is the captain of a Danish ship which is waylaid overnight by the British at a contraband control port. Valerie Hobson is a passenger who has been a thorn in Veidt's side for much of the trip. When he discovers that Hobson and another passenger (Esmond Knight) have stolen two landing passes and headed for London, Veidt sneaks off the ship, determined to return the two by morning. He catches up with Hobson and it turns out that she's a British spy trying to meet her contact to pass along important information. The two make their way through London at night, which is under blackout due to German bombing raids, and wind up kidnapped by Nazi spies. The first half is a little too drawn out, but the last half, with the kidnapping, Veidt's escape, and his attempt to backtrack to free Hobson and find Knight, is fairly exciting. One fun scene occurs at a Danish restaurant (the Six Vikings) where Veidt is able to get a free meal for himself and Hobson; later, Veidt returns there and gets the owner and waiters to act as his "posse" in his search for Hobson. Other locales include a cinema, a couple of nightclubs--including one called the White Negro where a production number almost occurs--and a warehouse in which a company called Patriotic Plaster Products is storing hundreds of small busts of Neville Chamberlain. Of course, these busts come into clever play during the climactic shootout. Hay Petrie (who reminds me in looks and voice of Claude Rains) is quite good in the dual role of the restaurant owner and his brother, first mate on Veidt's ship. Peter Bull (the Russian ambassador in DR. STRANGELOVE) has a minor role but a funny scene; when Veidt says his name is Hans Anderson, Bull says he and his two ruffian accomplices are the Grimm brothers, which becomes a running gag. Much of this takes place in pitch black surroundings and because the print on the DVD is not in the best shape, some details are lost. Not quite up to Hitchcock, but fun, and a must for Michael Powell fans. [DVD]

Thursday, September 09, 2004


I have no idea what possessed me to watch this, as I'm not really a Doris Day fan and I haven't had much luck with 60's spy spoofs, but this wound up being surprisingly enjoyable in fits and starts, even if it doesn't all work together very well. Day is a PR woman at an aerospace research corporation who gets tangled up (literally, by getting caught in a fishing line) with scientist Rod Taylor, who is working on a super-secret gizmo (called Gismo). They fall in love just as Day falls under suspicion of being a Russian spy (she makes strange daily calls to Vladimir, who is actually her dog--long story, never mind). The uneven first half develops as a screwballish romantic comedy which might have worked better with Rock Hudson instead of the fairly wooden Taylor. The last half picks up as the movie turns into a slapstick spy chase.

Day is fine, but the supporting cast (mostly made up of TV players) is largely what makes this worth watching. Dick Martin is Taylor's associate and friend, and he's every bit as good as Tony Randall was in the Day/Hudson movies--Martin should have made an extra career (after comedian and TV director) as a comic second banana in movies . Arthur Godfrey, in one of his very few movie roles, is quite credible as Day's father, who runs a glass bottom boat business--I don't understand the movie's title as the boat plays only a minuscule role in the proceedings. George Tobias and Alice Pearce, Mr. & Mrs. Kravitz of TV's "Bewitched," play similar parts here. Other TV stalwarts include Edward Andrews, John McGiver, Dom DeLuise, and Ellen Corby, but Paul Lynde steals the movie with a hilarious drag turn toward the end (which also includes a cameo by Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo); the second-best scene has Dick Martin, Edward Andrews, and a big champagne bottle in bed together. There is also a mildly amusing Jetsons-type kitchen scene and an overlong speedboat escapade. The title song, set to the old folk song "Mockingbird," is catchy, and Day even sings a verse of "Que Sera Sera." It's no classic, but it is more watchable than MODESTY BLAISE. I doubt there's a big demand for this on DVD, but it really should be seen letterboxed, as it's shown on Turner Classic Movies. [TCM]

Monday, September 06, 2004


One of the sillier of the Fox showbiz musicals, late in the cycle; even being in color doesn't help liven this one up. Don Ameche is a would-be composer of classical music from the Midwest who visits New York in 1922 and becomes enamored with Greenwich Village, the artistic, bohemian section of Manhattan (in much the same fashion as Ewan McGregor falls in love with the bohemians of MOULIN ROUGE, though the colorful crazies in that movie seem much more authentic than the bland types on display here). Nightclub owner William Bendix wants to back a Broadway revue and Ameche takes on the task of writing the music. He falls in love with singer Vivian Blaine (who definitely shows more personality than Fox's usual ingenue Alice Faye) and that's about it for the plot, except for a half-hearted story thread in which Ameche thinks he's being taken advantage of by Blaine and Felix Bressart. Carmen Miranda drifts in and out the proceedings as a fake fortune teller who winds up in the show, and B. S. Pully (best known for his unusual name and for playing a gangster in GUYS AND DOLLS) is the doorman. One of the more interesting things about the film is who was left on the cutting room floor. A group called the Revuers was hired to perform a couple of numbers, but both were cut out and we only see them in the background of a couple of scenes. Among the Revuers were future hit show writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and future Oscar winning actress Judy Holliday. The musical numbers are OK, with the best ones being a dance routine by the Four Step Brothers, and a very fun bit featuring seven uncredited black musicians who come springing out from behind instruments to play and dance. The atmosphere is distinctly un-bohemian, which hurts the film; the only touches of local color are a couple of mannish women and artists in glasses and goatees. [FMC]

Saturday, September 04, 2004


This early talkie will mostly appeal to fans of Loretta Young and Myrna Loy. It's certainly watchable, and it's sort of fun to see the plot careen back and forth between melodrama shaded with humor and coming of age story, with some hints of almost incestuous attraction in a May-December romance. Conway Tearle plays a middle-aged bachelor who has, with the help of two other older bachelors, raised the son of a friend (who died when the boy was only 6). Now the boy, affectionately nicknamed The Imp (David Manners) is turning 21 and he's engaged to be married to Loretta Young, daughter of Tearle's housekeeper. The Imp is a callow youth (after all, he's played by David Manners) and he skips a carefully planned birthday dinner to spend the night carousing with Kara, a sexy, golddigging nightclub singer (Myrna Loy). She thinks the boy has a big inheritance and so agrees to marry him when he asks her, but what she doesn't know is that Manners has very little money at all. Young finds a love letter from Loy to Manners, but Tearle covers up for Manners by saying it was written to him (they both have the same first name). This ploy, however, upsets Young even more--it turns out that she has been nursing a crush on the older man for some time. Tearle goes though an elaborate charade to keep the truth from Young, not realizing all the time that Young is miserable. Everything works out in the end for most of the characters: Young winds up with Tearle; Loy marries a rich daddy from Paris; Manners has no one, but has grown up from the experience.

It's a 1930 movie, so it's a little stiff and stagy, in production and acting. Loy is wonderful, like a breath of fresh air whenever she's around, glittery and sexy and dangerous. Manners is his usual rather awkward self (when he's staring with lust at Loy, he looks rather like Harpo Marx during his drunk scene in THE COCOANUTS) but he has the leading man looks needed for the part. Young is not as good as she would be in later movies; both she and Tearle are rather stiff. It could be intentional because both characters have been hiding emotional secrets from each other and everyone else, but I think that's a generous theory. The feelings of the 18-year-old Young for the 50's-ish Tearle and vice versa are fairly obvious from the beginning (and that Young lives in the house--and I think also works for Tearle--is what makes it feel almost like incest), but some more background of the characters would be helpful. All the exposition is crammed into a long dialogue scene in the first ten minutes of the movie. I would particularly recommend this to Loy fans--it's always fun seeing her as a kind of femme fatale (as she was in several of her early films) and contrasting that image with her good-girl/wifely image later in her career. [TCM]

Thursday, September 02, 2004


I know absolutely nothing about the game of bridge, but that didn't stop me from enjoying this light romantic comedy, a forerunner of the later screwball genre. Paul Lukas is Peter Stanislavsky, a waiter at a Russian restaurant where all the help are also musical performers. He winds up as a fourth in a bridge game with pretentious bridge expert Ferdinand Gottschalk; Lukas thinks that bridge is a silly game and decides to use his own system which he claims will stop couples from squabbling while playing the game. The system seems to work and Lukas gets Frank McHugh (who ghostwrote Gottschalk's book) to ghostwrite his own; the book is a wild success and Lukas and his wife (Loretta Young) become known as the nation's "Bridge Sweethearts" until things fall apart when the system starts to fail and McHugh's role as ghostwriter becomes known. The movie climaxes at a bridge showdown between Lukas and Gottschalk which is broadcast nationally over the radio. Knowledge of bridge rules isn't needed here, though I do wonder if we're supposed to think that Lukas really does have a good system, or if he (and Gottschalk, for that matter) is just pulling a fast one on the American public. Glenda Farrell is McHugh's scatterbrained girlfriend--I usually like her, but she's rather shrill here and not an important part of the movie. Roscoe Karns is the radioman who does commentary on the final bridge game. Cat-eyed Helen Vinson is perfect as the scheming woman who almost breaks up Lukas' marriage--in this pre-Code movie, they could get away with having Lukas actually be unfaithful but still be worthy of getting back together with Young. At 67 minutes, it ends at just the right point. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 01, 2004


Before I saw this movie, I knew nothing about the real life Henry Stanley and David Livingstone except that famous line, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" I don't know how factual this movie is, but it is entertaining and it does give an interesting, if certainly Hollywoodized, glimpse into an era (1870's) and a milieu that is rarely explored today in movies. Spencer Tracy plays Stanley, a reporter for a New York paper who is sent by his editor (Henry Hull) to Africa to find the missing missionary Livingstone (Cedric Hardwicke). One expedition, backed by a British paper and headed by its publisher (Charles Coburn), has come back claiming that Livingstone must be dead, but with no solid proof. Stanley and his sidekick pal (Walter Brennan) head off for Africa, most of which had not yet been mapped out by "white men." After a long and challenging trip, they find Livingstone, happy (if not terribly healthy) serving as medical doctor to a village of natives. Stanley stays with him for a while and helps him in his work, then returns to England bearing maps and documents in Livingstone's own hand as proof of his safety. However, the Royal Geographic Society, egged on by the London publisher, refuses to sanction Stanley's information, setting the stage for a climactic courtroom-like battle.

Tracy nicely underplays his part, though occasionally, especially in some of the African scenes, that acting strategy starts to come off as passivity or disinterest. Hardwicke is good, though his make-up always looks like make-up. Coburn is his usual blustering self and makes the most of his showdown with Tracy. Richard Greene is Coburn's son, who has returned from the original expedition in ill health and who sides with Tracy in the authentication dispute. Nancy Kelly is a young woman on whom Tracy has a romantic but ultimately platonic crush. Henry Travers has a couple of nice scenes as Kelly's father. Kelly's face is not exactly traditionally beautiful but interesting; she seems to have gotten bogged down in B-movies (I remember her as the title character in the thriller THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK) until her last hurrah as the mother in THE BAD SEED. Though all the scenes with the actors were filmed in Hollywood, there is some footage that was shot by a second unit on a safari in Africa which makes the film feel more real than the Tarzan films. My only real complaint is that we don't really get to know much about Stanley as a character, which is more the script's fault than Tracy's. [FMC]