Tuesday, March 30, 2004


A Hitchcock period melodrama, like his earlier JAMAICA INN. It's not very well regarded by critics, but despite some weak stretches, it's interesting enough to see once. Michael Wilding, a young man from a monied background but with no visible means of support, arrives in Australia (in 1830) with his uncle, the new governor of New South Wales. He gets involved in the affairs of his cousin (Ingrid Bergman) who, for all intents and purposes, seems stuck in an unhappy marriage with Joseph Cotten, a former convict who has made a decent living since his release, though he is snubbed by the "high society" types. Bergman is a barely functioning alcoholic and Wilding assumes that it's Cotten's fault, as he comes off as hard and uncaring, but the truth of their situation is more complicated. (Some critics have said that the movie is about a woman who suffers under her sadistic and cruel husband, but they clearly didn't watch the whole movie!) There are echoes of REBECCA and SUSPICION, though the atmosphere is never gloomy and menacing enough to get any real tension going. There are many long single-take shots (a technique that Hitchcock had apparently not gotten out of his system with ROPE the year before) and many of them work quite well, especially an astonishing seven-minute take which follows Wilding as he arrives at Cotten's house for dinner and peeks through a series of windows to get a glimpse of the dysfunctional dynamics going on inside. Margaret Leighton is the sinister housekeeper; she's good but not as effective as Judith Anderson was in REBECCA--who could be? The film is in rich Technicolor, with lots of lovely blues, golds, and browns. Dramatically undernourished, up to and including an anti-climactic climax, but still worth seeing. [DVD]

Sunday, March 28, 2004


Film noir at its noirest. It's a brutal film set in London in the world of wrestling promoters. The opening shot is very similar to that of the same year's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE: we see a man running from unseen persuers through shadowy city streets. In this film, it's Richard Widmark, a small-time American hood who does menial work for club owner Francis L. Sullivan. Widmark has big ideas but no brains or other helpful resources--aside from being able to finagle small sums of money from his long-suffering girl friend Gene Tierney (in a small and totally thankless role). He is described by casual friend Hugh Marlowe as "an artist without an art." Widmark decides to get into the wrestling world by promoting Greco-Roman matches with an aging wrestler (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his young protege. To get seed money, he cons Sullivan's wife (Googie Withers) out of some dough by selling her a forged nightclub license so she can open her own club and get away from her husband. Wrestling big wig Herbert Lom (who is also Zbyszko's son) doesn't think much of Widmark, and later, when Lom's father runs into trouble, Lom blames Widmark, sealing the hood's fate. The only non-sleazy characters are the incredibly colorless Tierney and Marlowe, who aren't really part of Widmark's world. The climactic wrestling scene is powerful and looks painfully real. The acting is solid, especially Sullivan and Withers as a couple stuck inextricably in the hell of each other. The movie has noir atmosphere to burn: shadows, grimacing faces in close-up, and lots of sweat and seediness. [FMC]

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Pre-Code romantic melodrama which retains some interest for its plot and cast. Loretta Young is a young woman from Merton, Kansas who plays the organ at the church and aspires to be a songwriter. David Manners is a New York businessman stuck overnight in Merton. As nothing is open in town on Sunday morning, he wanders into church and catches Young's eye; he hangs around town a few extra days and soon, they're having a little dalliance despite the fact that he has a fiancee (Helen Vinson) back home in the big city. After he leaves, Young has a falling out with her parents; it turns out that she was actually the illegitimate daughter of a chorus girl who had been stranded in Kansas some years ago. Young lights out for NYC and is distressed to find out about Vinson, but she makes other friends: a big hearted chorus girl (Una Merkel in her patented best friend role), a high society doctor (George Brent), and a big-shot Broadway producer (Louis Calhern). As Young begins to make headway in a musical career, Calhern tries to seduce her, which leads to betrayal, theft, and an accidental death. As is often the case with 30's films like this, the narrative wraps up too quickly and perfunctorily, but otherwise it's not a bad little film. Young and Brent are fine, Merkel is wonderful, and Manners is handsome. Roscoe Karns has a nice short bit, and I laughed at the spit take when Manners announces to his friends that he met the sexy Young in church. [TCM]

Saturday, March 20, 2004


Moderately interesting attempt to mix comedy and mystery that doesn't quite come off. In the convoluted but effective opening, police are called to an apparent murder scene; two policemen go missing (though actually they're stuck in the sewer system) and the story makes headlines, even though no dead bodies are found. The night's events happen in front of the house of rich gadabout Ben Lyon. He and his buddy Skeets Gallagher wake up the next morning (in the same bed) after a drunken night on the town. Once he's up and around, Lyon discovers two houseguests: a fan dancer (Pert Kelton) and her "mamager" (Walter Catlett). Lyon bumped them with his car the night before (a bit of drunken driving humor that certainly would not fly today!) and they fake injuries to see how much they can milk Lyon for. Lyon's fiancee (Thelma Todd) comes visiting with her military father and they mistake Kelton for a picked-up floozy. Soon, Lyon's aunt (Laura Hope Crews) shows up and an unidentified madman darts in and out of the story; mistaken identities and con jobs pile up quickly. Chick Chandler is a wide-eyed reporter who goes around saying, "What a story!" and forgetting that he has a pencil behind his ear. Kelton (Shirley Jones' mother in THE MUSIC MAN) and Crews (Aunt Pittypat in GONE WITH THE WIND) are fun, but Lyon is too wooden, and it's awfully hard to care about the outcome of all the shenanigans. [TCM]

Thursday, March 18, 2004


I have long been fascinated with the movie serials of the 30's and 40's; I've read at least two books about them and watched bits and pieces of several serials over the years. In the abstract, I still think the idea of an adventure movie, presented in theaters in short episodes spread out over several weeks, is a cool one, partly because I'm a sucker for nostalgia, especially for things that I wasn't able to experience first-hand. In practice, however, watching these movies in the home video format is difficult. They are incredibly formulaic and repetitive and I can't watch more than a couple of episodes at one sitting (even though each "chapter" is only about 20 minutes long). If I try to watch one chapter a week, I forget where I am in the plotline--which, I realize, is ultimately not that important in enjoying these movies. Before this DVD, I had tried watching 4 or 5 other serials and failed before I got halfway through any of them. DRUMS, however, has a reputation as one of the best of the old serials, and VCI put out a semi-restored 2-disc set last year, so I girded my loins and plunged in. It's taken a few months, but I can finally say I've finished a movie serial!

I must admit to a very un-PC affection for Fu Manchu, the insidious "yellow peril" villain featured in a series of stories and books (from 1912 through the 50's) written by Sax Rohmer. In the books, he's a mysterious and powerful figure often out for world domination. The 1932 Boris Karloff film THE MASK OF FU MANCHU succeeded quite well in bringing him to life. This serial from Republic Pictures had, I imagine, a lower budget (despite being four times longer than the Karloff movie) and, as with most of the serials done on the cheap, atmosphere takes a bit of a hit, with rather silly costumes, bad day-for-night filming, and occasional tell-tale cardboardish sets. But if you lower your expectations, it works fairly well. The first few chapters are devoted to a race between Fu and the British government (represented by Sir Nayland Smith and his buddies) to put together a broken map (in stone) in order to find the long-hidden tomb of Gengis Kahn. Once that's found, Fu steals Kahn's scepter in an attempt to wield great power in the East and start a war against the West (essentially the same plot as the 1932 movie). The good guys and bad guys seesaw back and forth in holding the upper hand; usually each chapter ends with a good guy seemingly about to bite the dust, but the next chapter begins with a reversal of fortune. There are some nice touches along the way, such as Fu's daughter scamming some natives into believing that a giant statue has come to life, and there are some silly touches as well, such as the title "drums" that beat loudly (and apparently telepathically) whenever Fu is about to commit mischief. The acting is about par for the B-movie course. Robert Kellard is hunky enough as the action hero Alan Parker, young assistant to Sir Nayland; Luana Walters is the plucky heroine (though she drops out of the movie about halfway through); William Royle is a rather drab Sir Nayland; Dwight Frye has a very small role in one chapter as a museum director. Fu is played by Henry Brandon, usually a reliable villain in B-movies (though I know him best as Acacius Page, the nudist teacher in AUNTIE MAME), but here he is clearly too young to play such a hardened bad guy, and the Oriental makeup is barely serviceable. He gives most of his lines a rather campy inflection, though it probably didn't sound that way in 1940. Still, it's all about what you expect. If you don't expect too much, this provides some good adventure fun, especially in the first and last few chapters. The print is OK and the DVD comes with a nice booklet on the history of Fu Manchu. [DVD]

Wednesday, March 17, 2004


Slick soap opera in that glossy, colorful, widescreen style that was popular in the late 50's and early 60's. For me, these movies date much more than films of the 30's and 40's. Its primary assets now are well-appointed sets, good use of color, and the smoldering presence of Paul Newman. The story begins with Newman coming home from WWII to the Philadelphia home of his rich parents. His mother (Myrna Loy) has, because of husbandly neglect, become a drunk and taken a lover; his father (Leon Ames) wants him to follow in his footsteps in the family business, but Newman wants to head to New York to with buddy George Grizzard and start fresh. Once set up in the city with some good contacts, Newman meets the lovely but rather icy Joanne Woodward and steals her away from her fiance (Patrick O'Neal). His business prospects aren't so hot, but eventually Newman stumbles into success when he helps save the life of a child who had fallen into an icy pond and the kid's grandfather (Felix Aylmer) gives him a job. With Newman devoting most of his time and energy to his work, he and Woodward start to drift apart and she slips into seeing her old flame on the side. Young wholesome Ina Balin comes into Newman's life and he decides that there are other things than money and property to make life worth living. The climax occurs at a board meeting when Aylmer is about to make Newman the youngest partner in the company's history, but Newman expresses other ideas. The story of the parents is front and center for the first 15 minutes, and Ames and Loy make it compelling (with Ames basically playing a harder, updated version of his Mr. Smith character in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS), but they drop out of the movie quickly. Most of the other characters aren't very interesting (though Newman and Woodward are both easy on the eyes). The writing is fairly weak, with people saying things to explain their behavior that they would never say out loud in real life; this seems to me to be a matter of inept literary adaptation (based on a John O'Hara novel). Look for Barbara Eden in a tiny role early on. The anti-materialistic message is rather old-hat now, but it may have been different back then. [DVD]

Monday, March 15, 2004


Paramount does a Fox-style musical with distinct echoes of the earlier HOLIDAY INN: same basic plot (two friends split up over a woman), same leading men (Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire), with music by the same songwriter (Irving Berlin). Astaire is a dancer in love with Joan Caulfield, but she falls for Crosby, once a singing partner of Astaire's but now a nightclub owner. Crosby and Caulfield get married, but he's restless and won't settle down; instead he opens clubs, makes them successful, sells them, resettles, and opens a new one. Even a daughter doesn't make Crosby any more domestic, so Caulfield leaves him and rejoins Astaire professionally. Romantically, however, things don't work out and a drunken Astaire falls during a dance number on stage one night and sustains an injury that ends his career. The framing device for the film has Astaire (now a radio personality) telling the whole story on the air in hopes that he can get Crosby and Caulfield back together. The plot is more serious than that of HOLIDAY INN, more reminiscent of a Fox musical love triangle (with, for example, Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, and Alice Faye), and it doesn't suit the talents of the leading men, but the elaborate musical numbers are diverting, including "Blue Skies," "Running Around in Circles," and the famous "Puttin' on the Ritz" number with Astaire dancing in front of chorus line made up of multiple versions of himself. Aside from the appeal of the Berlin songs, Astaire and Crosby are the only real draws. Olga San Juan as a singer named Nita Nova is good (I wonder why she didn't have a stronger career) but Billy DeWolfe is a second-rate comic sidekick--he's a notch above the horrific Phil Silvers but he's no Donald O'Connor or even Walter Abel. Even though it's not Christmas, stick with HOLIDAY INN. [DVD]

Saturday, March 13, 2004

SON OF FURY (1942)

Very enjoyable period melodrama with Tyrone Power near the peak of his career. The central story is of a twisted, dysfunctional family. Roddy McDowell is the young Benjamin Blake, the offspring of a duke and a poor girl who were married, but after the duke dies, his dastardly brother (George Sanders) hides evidence of the marriage so that McDowell won't be able to make any claims to money or property when he grows up. To keep control over him, Sanders snatches the boy away from his loving grandfather (Harry Davenport) and makes him a stable boy. Years later, when Ben grows up (Tyrone Power), he falls for Sanders' daughter (Frances Farmer) but when Sanders hears of a possible liason, he beats Power brutally and Power escapes, spending some years on a South Seas island, romancing Gene Tierney and collecting pearls to take back to England to make his fortune. When he does get back home, he tries to take Sanders on in court and discovers ex-flame Farmer to be a betraying wench. Power is handsome and charming (and shirtless in a few scenes) and Tierney is lovely, though she doesn't really have much to do except look good in her flowery swim suit and do what seems to be an early version of the Macarena. The black and white camerawork is occasionally stunning, far more "artistic" than I would expect in an average swashbuckler of the era. Sanders is excellent as the thoroughly evil villain, raging with sadistic fury at Power. Also in the cast: John Carradine as a sailor who befriends Power, Elsa Lanchester has a helpful barmaid, and Robert Greig as a judge. Quite fun all around; well made and nice to look at. [FMC]

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


An anti-"Lost Horizon" in which a group of British travelers are stranded in an isolated Indian village at the mercy of a cruel rajah. Its stage play origins show but it's fun to watch, largely due to George Arliss in the villainous lead role, and to the somewhat wild twists and turns the plot takes. Ralph Forbes is piloting a small plane carrying a stuffy old major (H.B. Warner) and his younger wife (Alice Joyce) when they are forced to crash land in relatively uncharted territory near the village of Rukh. At first they are welcomed by Arliss (the alternately cool and friendly Rajah) but it turns out that Arliss' brothers are about to be executed by the British and Arliss plans to hold the three hostage, either to negoiate a release or to take their lives for the lives of his brothers. Arliss tells Joyce he will spare her and send for her children to join her if she agrees to be his mistress (so that they can breed a small race of supermen!), but of course she turns him down. The prisoners try to get the British butler (Ivan Simpson) to help them send out a Morse Code message for help, but he betrays them, so they toss him out the window to his death in the rocky valley below. Can Warner get a message out before the Raja catches on to their plan?

The direction, as was the case in many early talkies, is static, with some shots awkwardly framed and some of the performances lacking power. Forbes does a good job looking like he's scared shitless as the plane goes down, but he has a more difficult time expressing any other subtler emotions. In a scene where he's trying to get Joyce to relax, he comes off like a demonic hypnotist (no wonder she doesn't calm down). Joyce is bland, but old pros Warner and Arliss are fine. Arliss was considered one of the greats in the 20's, on screen and stage. Warner appeared in over 100 movies in five decades, starting in 1914, and is probably best known as Christ in the silent KING OF KINGS, and as the druggist Mr. Gower in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Some of the sets are grand, especially the ritual room where the prisoners are to be sacrificed at the end. Of course, Joyce and Forbes are rescued, but Arliss is left unmolested by the British and gets in a good last line about Joyce, as he mutters, "She probably would have been a nusiance." [TCM]

Sunday, March 07, 2004


Although Colin Clive (mostly known as Dr. Frankenstein in the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN) plays the title character, it is Katharine Hepburn who is at the center of this film. She plays Lady Cynthia Darrington, a free thinking aviatrix whom, though rich and popular, has never had time in her life for a lover. Clive is Sir Strong, a sturdy, serious minded British type: husband, father, member of Parliament. His daughter (Helen Chandler, Mina in DRACULA) brings her father to a scavanger hunt party as a found artifact, a faithful husband. Chandler's married boyfried (Ralph Forbes) brings Hepburn as a virgin. Clive and Hepburn, both feeling quite out of place at a wild party, bond and soon begin an affair which hurts everyone around them, including Chandler, who comes to look upon Hepburn as a mentor, and Clive's wife (Billie Burke). Hepburn sets out to break some flying records (egged on, no doubt, by being referred to as "just a girl"), but Clive talks her into giving up flying for him. However, when she finds out she's pregnant, she goes for an altitude record, breaks it, then commits suicide by crashing the plane rather than have Clive leave his family for her. The movie's most infamous moment is Hepburn's appearance in a wild silver moth outfit--she's wearing it to a party, but it feels jarringly out of place in the serious discussion she has with Clive. The acting all around is solid, and even Clive, who is usually a stick or a neurotic (or both), is OK, though his chemistry with Hepburn comes and goes. Burke's dithery mannerisms are completely absent here. Even though there are pre-Code elements, the ending is still drearily moralistic, punishing Hepburn for being an unconventional and "uppity" woman. [TCM]

Thursday, March 04, 2004

DULCY (1940)

Screwballish B-ish MGM comedy, mostly notable for giving Ann Sothern something of a change of pace role. Instead of being her usual brassy, streetwise, working-class dame, here she's a ditzy rich girl who meddles ineffectively in the lives of everyone around her, getting things so messed up that they suddenly turn out right. The movie opens with a young Dan Dailey singing "Singin' in the Rain" in the shower until the hot water suddenly goes out; it's his sister Dulcy's (Sothern) fault as she's tinkering with the boiler until it explodes (in a short but funny scene). There's a bunch of seemingly unrelated plotlines set up: Dailey is concerned with the imminent visit of his fiancee's parents (Roland Young and Billie Burke); an inventor (Ian Hunter) is hanging around trying to sell his new airplane engine; there's a crazy man (Reginald Gardiner) who thinks he's actually his own brother, an airplane magnate; there's an ex-con (Guinn Williams) that Sothern takes under her wing as a butler. All the plotlines come crashing together when everyone winds up spending the weekend at a mountain cabin. Thanks to Sothern, all the wires that can get crossed, do, until everything is righted at the end. There's even more characters, including Hans Conreid as a surrealist playwright and Jonathan Hale as a lawyer who is chasing after Gardiner. The short length and fast pace are pluses. There are many funny bits, and Sothern comes off pretty well doing a variation on Hepburn's BRINGING UP BABY part. Of course, Young and Burke are joys, as always. [TCM]

Monday, March 01, 2004


A disembodied hand keeps popping up in a creepy mansion peopled with unlikeable characters. This movie plays out like an overlong Twilight Zone episode rather than a full-blooded horror movie, but it *is* a different kind of film for its era. The mix of characters is potentially interesting, but only Peter Lorre really brings the film to life. At the center of the story is Victor Francen, a pianist with a paralyzed arm who lives in an Italian town; he's cared for by pretty nurse Andrea King, with whom he's fallen in love. She, however, has the hots for the disreputable con man Robert Alda, who has gotten into Francen's good graces by writing one-handed arrangements of music so he can continue playing the piano. Lorre is Francen's creepy secretary, who spends his free time perusing a library full of occult books. King wants to leave with Alda, but Lorre rats her out to Francen, who then tries to strangle Lorre. That night, Francen dies in an accidental fall and some shifty relatives descend, trying to grab the house from King (the legal heir) and the books from Lorre. Soon it's discovered that the corpse's hand has been severed; hand sightings, eerie music, and a death follow. The scenes of the hand are quite good, except for the unfortunate coincidence that it looks rather like the Thing in The Addams Family TV series, which caused me to chuckle a few times. There are two trick "punch-line" endings. [TCM]