Saturday, August 28, 2004
A lively Warners crime melodrama, the first movie that Bette Davis made for the studio after she went on "strike" to get better roles. Technically, she lost the battle, but Warners did start doing better by her, and she won an Oscar in 1938 for JEZEBEL. This movie is not Oscar caliber, but it is a fine example of a genre in which the studio excelled. It's a well-written, well-acted gangster movie with a twist. Davis is Mary Dwight, hostess at a "clip joint," working to put money aside to send her younger sister (Jane Bryan) to college. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a clip joint is a night club where "customers are regularly overcharged" or otherwise "clipped" of some extra dough. The "hostesses" here are clearly prostitutes, though this is of course glossed over by the Production Code script. Davis rooms with other hostesses, and they all work for brutal mobster Eduardo Ciannelli. When customer Damian O'Flynn is murdered by Ciannelli's men, Davis agrees to work with cop Humphrey Bogart to get the goods on her boss, but she is scared into silence. Later, her sister, who drifts into Davis' line of work, is killed and, despite a savage beating that scars her for life, Davis and her fellow hostesses vow to bring Ciannelli to justice. Davis and Bogart are both very good; there is a romantic spark, but they both realize that even a friendship is impossible because of the very different worlds they inhabit. Warners' stable of strong supporting players is in evidence: Allen Jenkins has an amusing comic relief scene; Lola Lane, Mayo Methot (who would marry Bogart after the making of this movie), and Isabel Jewell are the hostesses; Henry O'Neill and John Litel are also featured. The ending, a show of feminine/feminist solidarity, with the women walking away from Bogart's world to their own lives, is effective. [TCM]
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Definitely not the Hope/Crosby comedy, but worth a viewing for fans of pre-Code movies. It's set in the fictional locale of Khota, which sounds African but seems to be somewhere in the British controlled Orient. William Powell is a cad (or a bounder or a scoundrel, take your very British pick) who returns to Khota after a scandal involving another man's wife; he is not welcomed with open arms by the very proper Brits who populate the ritzy social club, but despite his somewhat dissolute aura, he becomes a dashing figure of interest for two women: Doris Kenyon, the new wife of stuffy doctor Louis Calhern, and Marian Marsh, Calhern's young sister. When Powell first flirts, rather aggressively, with Kenyon, she rebuffs him, but after a few weeks of marriage to Calhern, who completely ignores her social and physical needs, Kenyon goes on the prowl for Powell. Meanwhile, Marsh, a restless virgin whose only potential boyfriend is a passive dolt, also sets her sights for Powell. It turns out that Powell is not quite the complete cad he's been painted: he turns Marsh down flat (in an amusing scene in which he basically "scares" her straight) and tries to make Kenyon understand what she's in for if the two enter into an affair. Calhern discovers the goings-on and heads to Powell's bungalow with a gun. The ending is a pleasant surprise which would not have been allowed under the later Production Code.
This is one of Powell's earliest sound movies and he's a bit more rakish and decadent than he was later--at times, he comes off more like Clark Gable (though without his scampish twinkle) than William Powell. The rest of the cast is fine, with Marsh especially fun. There are also two upper-class twits, one played by the flamboyant Tyrell Davis, who wander in and out of the scenes arguing mindlessly, in the manner of the Caldicott and Charters characters in THE LADY VANISHES. There is a wonderful long panning shot (done with some miniatures and at least two "hidden" cuts) in the middle of the movie, starting on the face of the lonely and frustrated Kenyon staring out at the hot night, and backing up through the trees and brush until we end on the face of Powell, also staring out in longing. Quite good, especially if your cup of tea is steamy tropical melodrama. [TCM]
Monday, August 23, 2004
A pleasant little second-feature comedy, the kind that Warners was churning out in assembly-line fashion in the 30's. The movie opens with a cute scene of Dick Powell and his band (The Three Sharps) riding a boxcar though the Midwest on the way to Hollywood; during an impromptu performance, they get thrown off the train and wind up at a dude ranch in Wyoming. Powell meets cute with Priscilla Lane, the daughter of the owners of the ranch, and the boys get a job singing for the vacationing "dudes" who want an authentic cowboy experience--though the owners (Emma Dunn and Granville Bates) complain about having to fake the expected lingo and mannerisms. A vacationing Broadway producer (Pat O'Brien) discovers Powell and offers him a contract to become an "authentic" cowboy radio singer named Wyoming Steve Gibson, but there are at least two hitches to the plan: 1) a real singing cowboy (Dick Foran) who sings terribly and is turned down by O'Brien threatens to expose Powell as a fake; 2) Powell has a phobia of animals of all kinds, from squirrels to horses. The two problems come together at the end when, in order to combat Foran’s claims, O'Brien signs Powell up to perform at a rodeo at Madison Square Garden, leading to an effective slapstick finale. James Stephenson is a hypnotist hired to cure Powell's phobia; Ann Sheridan has a small and thankless part as O'Brien's sister who threatens briefly to become Lane's rival for Powell's affections; Ronald Reagan is O'Brien's PR man; Warners' stock B-men Jeffrey Lynn and John Ridgely have small roles as reporters. It's not exactly a musical, but there are a few songs, the best of which is "Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride" by Johnny Mercer. The singing cowboy was a real radio fad in the late 30's (see the Countess' boyfriend Buck Winston in THE WOMEN from '39). Fun, depending on your tolerance for Dick Powell. [TCM]
Friday, August 20, 2004
I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE (1951)
The novel this movie was based on was also the basis for a 60's Broadway musical which helped launch Barbra Streisand's career, but this film version is strong enough to stand on its own, even though it seems to be largely forgotten today. The film is set in New York City's garment district and stars Susan Hayward as an ambitious model who wants to break out on her own and design the kind of dresses that she has been modeling. With chutzpah, sex appeal, and some calculated lies, she manages to steal two men from a dress house to help her start her own company: old-timer Sam Jaffe, a dressmaker, and energetic Dan Dailey, the company's star salesman. She also lies to her own sister to get some seed money. Hayward flirts a bit with Dailey, but is mostly aboveboard with him about her overriding concern for the company's success. Nevertheless, Dailey falls for her, even as she begins plotting to leave the company and do exclusive, upscale designs for department store owner George Sanders. Hayward and Sanders (who also engage in some hard-nosed flirtation, with both knowing exactly what the score is) conspire to break her contract with her company, betting that Dailey will let her go, but instead Dailey and Jaffe risk bankruptcy to keep their integrity.
Hayward is excellent and quite believable both in her steely strong outward persona and in her more vulnerable moments. Dailey does a nice job as the confident salesman, who's not above using his sex appeal to get what he wants almost as much as Hayward does. Marvin Kaplan, who will be recognized for many of his TV and movie roles as a mousy nerd (he was a regular customer on TV's Alice), is funny in a small role as an assistant who falls for Jaffe’s daughter (Barbara Whiting, real-life sister of singer Margaret Whiting). Sanders is his usual reliable self; there seems to be a bit of an ALL ABOUT EVE-type dynamic in the conniving between Sanders and Hayward, although he's not as caddish as he is as Addison DeWitt. Mary Philips, who plays Hayward's mother, reminds me of Thelma Ritter. The plotline involving Hayward's sister and brother-in-law gets dropped halfway through, but otherwise, the whole thing plays out quite nicely. Recommended. [FMC]
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Apparently, James Bond and BLOW-UP weren't the only influences on Austin Powers. In fact, Mike Myers probably based his Powers character and the look of the films more on OUR MAN FLINT than anything else. The odd thing is that FLINT itself was already a parody of mid-60's spy movies. James Coburn plays Derek Flint, superspy and superstud, who is called upon by ZOWIE (Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage) to help fight a group called Galaxy (as far as I could tell, not an acronym) which is trying to blackmail the nations of the earth by disrupting international weather patterns and causing much destruction (and promising more). The film has its share of lulls, as the central plot and action scenes aren’t all that compelling--though the final destruction of Galaxy's Pleasure Island works well, especially considering that in the days before digital effects, this movie used real sets and miniatures, real explosions, and real extras. What fun that remains is almost all in the details: Flint's tie turns into a stethoscope which he uses for breaking into a vault; he has four sexy women living with him in his ritzy bachelor pad; Galaxy is hypnotizing women into being "pleasure units," devoted solely to doing their men's bidding (clearly early versions of Fembots); a quick appearance by Agent 0008 (get it?). The best line comes when Coburn shows his boss, Lee J. Cobb, a nifty lighter which actually has 82 spy functions, "83, if you want to light a cigar." One other funny line (which has some resonance today given our country's recent intelligence problems) comes when Cobb tells off an agent who has messed up: "Great intelligence work--your next post will be Peyton Place." But witty dialogue is not abundant here.
What *is* abundant is "groovy" set design: lots of day-glow colors, psychedelic patterns, and elaborate headquarter sets for the good guys and the bad guys. There is also a giant red phone, the shrill ring of which is exactly like some cell phones today. The idea that Flint is saving women from being unthinking "pleasure units" is rather undercut by the ending, when he has five women oozing all over him, desperate to pleasure him. Coburn looks the part just fine, as does his main antagonist, Gila Golan. Edward Mulhare (who played the Ghost in the 60's TV series of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir") is the main bad guy. Overall, I don't think this holds up all that well today: the satirical elements peter out after the first half hour, and the more traditional action elements don't kick in until the very end. However, the DVD print looks great: a sharp image with good color, though there aren't any extras except trailers. Recommended for Austin Powers fans. [DVD]
Monday, August 16, 2004
This is a French movie, directed by the German Fritz Lang, and based on a Hungarian play which also became the basis for a popular American musical (CAROUSEL by Rodgers and Hammerstein) which is famous these days mostly for being considered anti-feminist. Even as a kid, I had a hard time buying the plot of the musical; the main character is a no-good carny turned small-time crook who smacks his wife around, dies, goes to Heaven (!?), and returns to earth several years later to make amends at his daughter's graduation; he still winds up letting his anger get the best of him and smacks his daughter, who still loves him because, in the words of the abused wife, "It is possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all." This early non-musical version isn't as irritating, partly because Charles Boyer can get away with being a sympathetic shit better than Gordon MacRae could. We can see a little of what is attractive about his character--I'm not normally a Boyer fan, but he is exuberant here--although it's not clear to me why Julie (Madeleine Ozeray), seemingly a delicate young thing, falls so quickly for the rough-edged Liliom. At the carnival where the two meet, Julie is accused of being a whore by Liliom's boss (played by Florelle) who herself has a thing for him. Liliom is fired from the carnival, and he and Julie wind up living together. Life is no picnic for either of them, but when Julie gets pregnant, Liliom tries to pull off a robbery to get some money; things get bungled and he stabs himself to death rather than face the ignominy of capture (in a nice detail, Julie feels the thrust of the knife herself even though she is nowhere near the robbery). He is sent to Heaven (by two ominous looking celestial "policemen"), and as in the musical, gets a chance to come back to earth years later. Heaven here is a sly parody of the earthly police bureaucracy which we saw in action earlier, and this sequence is the best in the movie. I still can't quite wrap my mind around the message about hitting not hurting; yes, I know that romantic love can make us simple and stupid, but this still doesn't seem like a very redemptive message. Still, this was interesting to see if only for the set design and the shadowy, expressionistic look. The DVD print from Kino appears to have been taken from a tape source rather than celluloid, so it's far from perfect, but it may be the best that is possible. [DVD]
Friday, August 13, 2004
On the surface, this feels like a typical film noir, concerned with themes of betrayal, guilt, revenge, destiny, and redemption, but unlike most noirs, it's not about or set in the criminal underworld. Van Heflin, a successful building contractor living in a small town, has built a good suburban life for himself, his wife (Janet Leigh), and his children. One day, he realizes he is being stalked by a crippled man (Robert Ryan) and escapes to a nearby big city where he is befriended by a gold-hearted whore (Mary Astor) and a hitman (Berry Kroeger). We discover that Heflin and Ryan were prisoners of war together and Heflin betrayed a group of men who were planning an escape; he did it thinking he was doing good, but the men were all killed except Ryan who has set out to avenge his fellow soldiers. Phyllis Thaxter, Ryan's girlfriend, tries to talk him out of his vow of revenge, Kroeger closes in on Ryan in an attempt to kill him before he can kill Heflin, and Heflin has to make a tough decision that could lead to redemption. Watchable, with all the actors doing fine jobs; Astor is especially good in a change of pace role as Heflin's world-weary protector. There are some nice noir visuals and the subject matter of what would now be called post-traumatic stress is interesting, but overall not a terribly memorable film. [TCM]
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
A B-thriller with an interesting premise but not quite enough budget or talent to fulfill its initial promise. Dana Andrews is a Korean War vet who was a prisoner of war and underwent brainwashing before being returned to the U.S. The brief torture scene at the beginning made me think we were headed for Manchurian Candidate territory but this element is basically ignored except to give Andrews a physical weakness (he suffers sharp, sudden headaches) that frequently threatens to put him in danger's way. He returns to the PR firm he co-founded only to find that his partner has sold it to slimy Dick Foran, then died in a hit-and-run accident the very next day. The firm is moving from taking opinion polls to molding public opinion, working specifically for an anti-nuclear group that is actually a front for Communists. Despite some critical commentary I read about the movie, the anti-Commie element is not particularly strong--we get the impression that the firm would do this work for anyone who paid them. Andrews, who is initially rebuffed by Foran, is asked to return to the company for the prestige of his name, and at the prodding of a senator, he does join up so he can infiltrate and fight their insidious "brainwashing" of the public. A secretary (Marilee Earle) and a reporter (Joel Marston) help Andrews; an odd married couple (the wife is B-movie cult figure Veda Ann Borg) try to stop him. Mel Torme plays an evil underling who ends up on Andrews' side because he has the hots for Earle. The low budget is obvious from the sets, the flat lighting, and the stale dialogue, though director Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE) uses shadows well. Most of it looks like an early TV movie. Andrews isn't bad, but a more energetic lead actor may have helped. The climactic fight occurs between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument--no symbolism there! The general paranoid tone about trust or distrust of PR information remains timely in this age of media monopolies. [TCM]
Monday, August 09, 2004
An odd little pre-Code romantic comedy that keeps threatening to turn into a musical. It certainly opens like a musical, albeit in an unusual setting: on skyscraper girders several stories up in the air, we see a couple of riveters (Ben Lyon and Tom Dugan) at work who lament their lack of romance by breaking out into song ("Nobody Loves a Riveter But His Mother"). In the middle of handling the red-hot rivets, Lyon gets distracted when he looks through a window of the building next to them and sees a half-undressed heiress (Ona Munson) lolling about in bed. A stray rivet winds up causing a small fire in her bedroom, so Lyon throws a plank over to her window and saves her. Despite their very different social worlds, the two begin dating, but problems arise when Munson tells her friends and folks that Lyon is an architect, without telling Lyon. When the truth comes out at a fancy house party, Lyon leaves her, but thanks to Munson's determination, she wins him back by the end. Aside from the opening, the other high point here is the song, "Like Ordinary People Do," which includes a cute special effects shot of Lyon and Munson singing from inside a painting. Lyon, best known as the aviator in Howard Hughes' HELL'S ANGELS, is looser and more carefree than I've ever seen him; Munson looks the part but is a bit stiff; Walter Pidgeon plays her mean-spirited fiance; Inez Courtney is good as Dugan's romantic interest. My partner noted that this seemed like the kind of movie that Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden might have starred in after "Singin' in the Rain." [TCM]
Saturday, August 07, 2004
An interesting race-against-time thriller, sort of a "noir lite," and well worth watching. Bill Williams plays a sailor at liberty in New York City until 6 a.m. when he has to catch a bus back to his barracks. The movie opens after Williams wakes up at a sidewalk newsstand from a drunken blackout--he was slipped a mickey by sexy good-for-nothing Lola Lane--and realizes he has a bundle of money in his pocket that belonged to Lane; when he goes back to her apartment, he finds her dead and fears that he killed her. With some help from a sympathetic dance hall girl (Susan Hayward) and a philosophy-spouting cab driver (Paul Lukas), Williams tries to figure out what happened and who was responsible for Lane's death. Was it her ex-husband (Marvin Miller), a blind pianist whom we saw come to Lane's apartment to get money? Was it Joseph Calleia, a gambling thug who knew Lane? Was it Jerome Cowan, a sleazy Broadway producer who was worried about being blackmailed by Lane? Or was it the drunken sailor after all? Although this has strong film noir elements (a shadowy big-city night, a hero who is ready to accept as fate that he might be guilty), there is, at times, a Hardy Boys feel about the proceedings, with the sailor, the girl, and the cabbie joined in their sleuthing by other characters eager to clear their names. And our gang runs across plenty of other characters who are active in the wee hours of the night, including Osa Massen, Constance Worth, and Phil Warren.
Williams is very good at striking a balance between "gee whiz" naivete and fatalism; Hayward is even better as the world-weary (and physically weary) heroine, long before she made a habit of going over the top in her 50's "women's pictures." Lukas seemed a bit too old to be playing the gregarious cabbie (I was thinking Cagney, or for a limited RKO budget, Jack Carson), but we discover later that there's a plot point that calls for him to be that age. Playwright Clifford Odets ladles the stagy dialogue on a bit thick at times, but there are also some nice lines: Hayward, saying it's time "to pause for station identification" as Williams is telling his story; Lukas continually beginning his observations by saying that "statistics tell us that..."; Lola Lane (who is quite good in her very short amount of screen time) opening the movie by opening her door to her ex-husband and exclaiming, "Sleepy Parsons! Aren't you dead yet?" Based on a book by Cornell Woolrich, one of the major noir writers of the era. Definitely recommended. [TCM]
Friday, August 06, 2004
Another Fox showbiz musical, a little better than most of the era. The MGM showbiz musicals were generally glossy and fizzy; the Fox movies couldn't resist the temptation to take the plots a little too seriously, and the movies aren't as much fun to watch--and it doesn't feel like they were as much fun to make. This one follows the career of dancer Tim O'Connor (Dan Dailey) who meets the very proper Hannah Adams (Anne Baxter) while touring New England; they fall in love, marry, and wind up sharing a showbiz career, first on the vaudeville stage and later in silent movies. She becomes a major star and he is happy to "retire" as a gentleman farmer. The middle sequence shows the coming of sound, in a similar fashion as SINGIN' IN THE RAIN would do a few years later, though this movie is nowhere near as funny or perceptive as the Gene Kelly film would be. To Baxter's initial dismay, their daughter (Shari Robinson) gets into the biz, becoming a Shirley Temple-type star, even singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and doing a dance with a black dancer, though here instead of the great Bill Robinson, it's (bizarrely) Dan Dailey in blackface. Despite some mild career angst, all ends with everyone relatively happy. Baxter's silent movie scenes are well done recreations, with Buster Keaton in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo. Dailey has a couple of nice numbers: "The Varsity Drag" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo." The supporting cast is mostly undistinguished except for the wonderful and woefully underused Anne Revere as a maiden aunt. It's in color and doesn't outstay its welcome (it's about 90 minutes), and Dailey and Baxter are fine together, but it begins to vanish from memory as soon as it's over. [FMC]
Tuesday, August 03, 2004
STEEL AGAINST THE SKY (1941)
Strong Warner Brothers B-film with all their usual strengths and few of the weaknesses. It's a family conflict narrative, the kind that, with an A-budget, might have had James Cagney and Dennis Morgan. Here, it's Lloyd Nolan and Craig Stevens as brothers who work building bridges; Nolan is the older, plainer, more stable one and Stevens is younger, good looking, and cocky, and also not certain that he wants to follow in the family footsteps. Nolan is dating Alexis Smith (the boss's daughter) until sparks fly between Smith and Stevens (who would get married in real life a few years later). This leads to problems on the job and at home, where the brothers live with their father (Edward Ellis). The scenes on the bridge, though obviously done on studio sets with rear projection, are quite well done considering the low budget, and the climax, during a freezing rain "blizzard," is great. Edward Brophy, the third brother, has some nice comic relief; Walter Catlett provides less welcome comedy as a foolish inventor named Sampson who is working on something called Sampsonite (!); Gene Lockhart is the boss; Howard Da Silva is effective as a villainous agitator; Jackie Gleason and John Ridgely have small roles. [TCM]
SHE COULDN'T SAY NO (1940)
Eve Arden had her first leading role in this short second-feature. She plays a secretary to a lawyer (Roger Pryor), though she herself is also a lawyer; because she and Pryor are engaged, and he wants to "wear the pants" in the family, she has been content to be the hired help. Pryor heads out to a small town to get old man Potter (Clem Bevans, not Lionel Barrymore ;-) to sell some property that Pryor's old boss wants, but the eccentric Bevans won't deal with anyone because he lives in fear of a breach-of-promise suit being served by an old flame, Vera Lewis. Pryor offers to help Bevans in the suit in exchange for the property. Arden arrives in town unexpectedly and through a misunderstanding, winds up being hired by Bevans; Pryor represents Lewis, and both are promised the property. Naturally, there are shenanigans along the way before the happy ending. Arden outshines Pryor (who never rose above B-movie leading man) as does Cliff Edwards who plays a friend to both. Vera Lewis had small roles in over 100 movies, and her rather unpleasant looks make her stand out--she always looks mean and startled at the same time, even when she's smiling. Most of her roles were uncredited bits; this may be her biggest part ever. Fun for fans of Arden, and short enough to be generally fun and painless for all. [TCM]