Friday, December 31, 2004

My Year in Movies--2004 (Part 2)

The best "classic" movies that I saw for the first time and wrote up on my blog this year, in alphabetical order:

THE AMAZING MR. X (1948/June): A Poverty Row thriller that transcends its low budget with thick atmosphere and surprisingly good writing. Lynn Bari is a rich widow who meets up with exotic medium Turhan Bey; is he scamming her or befriending her? It turns out to be a little of both. On DVD.

BORN TO KILL (1947/Jan): A brutal film noir from Robert Wise with sharp performances by Lawrence Tierney as a psychopath and Claire Trevor as the woman who is both repelled and excited by him. Their seduction scene is truly something to see.

DAYS OF GLORY (1944/Jan): *This* is how to do a WWII pro-Russia propaganda movie: good direction (from Jacques Tourneur), good actors (including Gregory Peck in his screen debut), fleshed-out characters that we care about, and atmospheric sets (most of the movie is set in the basement of a bombed-out monastery, yet it never looks or feels stagy), and all done on a relatively low budget.

KONGO (1932/Nov): Wild jungle melodrama which could almost qualify as a horror movie. John Huston is great as a crippled hunter who rules a small African village and plots to wreck vengeance on people who he feels have wronged him. This has Virginia Bruce's best performance.

THE LATE GEORGE APLEY (1947/May): Amusing satire about a snobbish Boston blueblood (Ronald Colman) who has to adjust his attitudes a bit as the modern world encroaches on his home turf.

LILLY TURNER (1933/April): Good pre-Code weepie with Ruth Chatterton giving a very "modern" performance as the beleaguered title character searching and sacrificing for love. George Brent gives one of his best performances here, and the "threesome" ending is rather astonishing for its day.

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936/Oct): Underrated British horror film with Boris Karloff in one of his first mad scientist roles as a man who can switch minds from one body to another. The romance that is shoehorned in is negligible, but the acting and atmosphere are strong. On DVD.

MIDNIGHT (1939/June): Screwball comedy with a light-as-a-feather touch, something that not all screwballs can sustain. Claudette Colbert is a poor chorus girl posing as rich to scam her way into luxury; John Barrymore (in one of his best performances) is the millionaire who uses her for his own scamming purposes; Don Ameche and Mary Astor also shine.

SON OF FURY (1942/March): Tyrone Power at his most dashing as the hero of this period melodrama. George Sanders is excellent as Power's cruel guardian. Also worth watching as it contains one of the few film performances by the near-legendary Frances Farmer.

STEEL AGAINST THE SKY (1941/Aug): No masterpiece, but a highly enjoyable Warners B-movie from their heyday. Two brothers (Lloyd Nolan and Craig Stevens) build bridges, brawl over a woman (Alexis Smith), and help each other out of rough spots. Lots of fun.

Other highlights of the year: DeMille's THE CRUSADES; Sternberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS; Edna May Oliver in the Hildegarde Withers movies, especially PENGUIN POOL MURDER; John Barrymore in his prime in COUNSELLOR AT LAW; George Arliss in THE GREEN GODDESS; Kay Francis at her peak in MANDALAY; Wheeler and Woolsey in HIPS HIPS HOORAY; two nifty B-horror films, THE UNDYING MONSTER and DR. RENAULT'S SECRET; Fox's lovely Technicolor THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING.

As far as current movies, the highlights were few and far between: SHAUN OF THE DEAD, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, The Coen Brothers' THE LADYKILLERS, and HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE. Though I'm glad that FAHRENHEIT 9/11 made headlines, I wish it had been a better movie. I'm one of the few people who actually liked the remake of THE STEPFORD WIVES. On DVD, I enjoyed DIE MOMMIE DIE, THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, and SHATTERED GLASS. I discovered French director Robert Bresson, but he'll have to wait til next year to get written up here.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

My Year in Movies--2004 (Part 1)

Tomorrow, I'll list my favorites, but first, the most disappointing movies I saw this year. I think "disappointing" is a better word than "worst"; some of these *are* pretty bad, but more often, it's more precise to say that I felt let down by these:

FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE (1950/Jan): Lightweight fantasy with good actors (Clifton Webb and Edmund Gwenn) that is beat to death with a very heavy hand by all concerned--actors, writers, and director.

A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945/July): The concept of Tallulah Bankhead in a comic portrayal of Catherine the Great sounds fabulous, but very little in it works. A decent cast left at sea by dull dialogue and B-ish production values.

SONG OF RUSSIA (1943/July) and WE WHO ARE YOUNG (1940/Dec): Two Socialist propaganda pieces which forget to entertain while dishing out the dogma.

CORREGIDOR (1943/Nov): The problem with this WWII propaganda piece is the opposite of the above two movies: too much attention is paid to the dreary plot and characters and not enough to the wartime messages.

WEST OF SHANGHAI (1937/Apr): Boris Karloff is wasted in this "exotic" melodrama with a convoluted plot and mediocre cast.

Next are movies about which I feel conflicted. Most have one or two strong elements to recommend them, but don't quite come together as a satisfying whole:

UNDER CAPRICORN (1949/Mar): A Hitchcock period piece with very little suspense but with some nice use of color and interesting camerawork.

THE LAST FLIGHT (1931/July): A WWI "Lost Generation" story which is worth seeing for its Hemingwayish feel, although the actors, including Richard Barthelmess and Helen Chandler, aren't quite up to the job.

FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945/Dec): Tom Neal is an American who has his physical features altered to make him look Japanese so he can sneak into Tokyo to free an atomic scientist needed to finish the A-bomb. Not a thing about the movie is believable, but it's so deliriously dumb that it's fun.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

PRINCE OF FOXES (1949)

A period adventure piece with a split personality: half glossy action fluff and half art movie. In the 1500's, Tyrone Power (always good for some glossy action) is a peasant posing as a royal loner, in the employ of Cesare Borgia (Orson Welles), an Italian politician turned warlord bent on conquering much of Italy. Power, as a diplomat whose main skill is seducing women, helps Borgia with his land-grabbing aims until he loses his heart to Wanda Hendrix, whose elderly husband (Felix Aylmer) is head of a community that Welles is after. Power winds up on the side of Hendrix, helps to fight off Welles's army, is captured and tortured, escapes, and ultimately wins out over his former employer. Welles is excellent and seems to be playing in a whole different movie from the rest of the cast (except for Everett Sloane, who is quite good as a toady who may or may not be faithful to Power). Katrina Paxinou has a small role as Power's mother. The movie is in occasionally muddy black and white which is sometimes artily effective in conveying a mood, but with the period sets and exterior shots, I think the film would have been more interesting in color. The scene where Sloane appears to be gouging out Power's eyes is memorable. The movie is worth seeing, but viewers expecting a rousing swashbuckler treat like Power's earlier MARK OF ZORRO or SON OF FURY should beware. [FMC]

Monday, December 27, 2004

WE WHO ARE YOUNG (1940)

A sad little social drama which feels like a B-movie remake of the silent classic THE CROWD. John Shelton is a young man who works in an accounting department; he sees himself as a go-getter, anxious to "lick this city," and he has worked out a multi-page production plan that he thinks will get him somewhere, though his boss (Gene Lockhart) keeps putting off reading it. Shelton marries secretary Lana Turner even though there is a company rule against such marriages, and they manage to keep it secret for a while, but when Lockhart finds out, he fires Turner. She becomes pregnant, and Shelton gets behind in loan payments, leading to the repossession of all their furniture and the loss of his job (Lockhart's mantra is "A rule broken ceases to be a rule"). The rest of the film follows Shelton on a downward spiral: getting his CPA certification but not finding a job, going on relief (which hurts his self-esteem), and finally snapping and going violent at a construction site when he begs for a job but is ignored. However, the construction boss (Jonathan Hale), seeing a little of himself in Shelton, gives him a job. When Turner is about to give birth, Shelton steals a car to get her to the hospital. The car owner decides not to press charges, Turner delivers twins, and even Lockhart has a change of heart. Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood left-winger who was one was one of the more famous victims of the blacklist, wrote this and anyone looking for evidence of socialist messages would find plenty: the word "capitalist" is flung as an insult, and the main moral of the story's last 20 minutes is that "it takes help to make it." Shelton is colorless and unattractive, and at times hard to sympathize with; Turner is good, as is Lockhart. Familiar supporting faces include Grant Mitchell, Clarence Wilson, and Charles Lane. The happy ending feels fake as political propaganda trumps art. [TCM]

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Made-for-TV Christmas 2004

In scanning the TV listings for new Christmas movies this year, two stood out to me as having some Yuletide cheer potential so I splurged and watched both. The first one, THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS EVE, has a clever premise, stolen from GROUNDHOG DAY: a man (Steven Weber), too busy on Christmas Eve attending to business to pay attention to those close to him, is hit by a giant finger (part of a store sign) and wakes up in a hospital. His nurse (Molly Shannon) tells him he has 12 chances to relive that Christmas Eve and get his priorities straight. He tries hard but keeps messing up one way or another and winds up back in his Cosmic Hospital bed with Shannon pressing him to get it right. Weber is OK, though his heart doesn't seem in it; Shannon is oddly subdued, which at first I thought might work, but by the end, I was missing her zany energy. Vincent Gale is a standout in the supporting cast as Weber's business underling. Weber's character is not especially Scroogish, which is a nice touch, but he's not developed well enough for us to see him as a person who is badly in need of ghostly rehabilitation. [USA Network]

KARROLL'S CHRISTMAS is the better film thanks to its star, Tom Everett Scott, and a great production design--lots of gauzy shots with bright colored Christmas lights galore. The plot is a nice twist on Dickens: spirits haunt a man on Christmas Eve in order to make him a better person, but they get the wrong guy. Scott, a writer of greeting cards, is having a bad holiday, mostly due to his neighbor, cranky old Wallace Shawn. The ghost of Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future mistakenly appear to Scott when they were meant for Shawn. In the process of the hauntings, both Scott's and Shawn's lives are examined and Scott finds out why Shawn (the former owner of the greeting card company) is so bitter, and on Christmas Day, Scott manages to "fix" his own life and Shawn's as well. The ghosts (Larry Miller, Alanna Ubach, and Verne Troyer) are all quite good and they have fun with the updating of several traditional "Christmas Carol" bits: Jacob Marley is a Rastafarian, two of the ghosts are Jewish, and a remote control zapper is used to get through time and space. This is the first time I've see Troyer, best known as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers series, actually get much dialogue and he's good, even game enough to go along with a couple of references to his Mini-Me self. Deanna Milligan is lovely as Scott's girlfriend, and Shawn is his usual reliable self, but the handsome Scott carries the show with his essential sweetness coming through all the job, love-life, and yuletide frustrations. The last 20 minutes feel rushed, with some plot loopholes and unexplained actions, but this one might be worth having on DVD next year (Oy, those commercials!!) [A&E]

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Some Unorthodox Christmas Viewing Choices

I'm a big Christmas movie fan and generally, I'm happy settling in with such obvious choices as MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, HOLIDAY INN, or one of the many versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL out there. But I've also kept track of films which have some tie to the holidays, even if Christmas themes are not central to the story. One of my favorite non-Christmas holiday movies is THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941). Monty Woolley plays a famous radio commentator (based on the real Alexander Woollcott--imagine a Paul Harvey/Rush Limbaugh combo who is intellectual and sentimental on the air and a snarky snob off the air) who falls on ice while in a small town in Ohio and winds up stuck living with a family for three weeks around Christmas. He's nasty to everyone around him; Bette Davis is his secretary, who has to run interference for him. She falls in love with the local newspaper editor and wants to quit her job to stay in Ohio, but Woolley plots to keep her by getting sexy star Ann Sheridan to arrive on Christmas Eve to break up their love nest. Woolley is the whole show here, sneering and throwing tantrums and occasionally being surprisingly charming. Sheridan chews the scenery to wonderful effect, and Reginald Gardiner is nicely flamboyant as a fictionalized Noel Coward, leaving Davis to strike a balance by underacting. Some of the cultural references are dated now, but the humor is not. As many times as I've seen this (at least twice a year for the last 18 years), I still laugh out loud frequently. In addition to other fine films which are set wholly at Christmas, such as CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, there are others in which some or much of the action is set during the holidays; the following are all ones I can recommend:

Two movies that are set mostly at Christmas but which are not necessarily programmed often during the holidays are BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958) with Kim Novak as a witch who snags James Stewart with a love spell (kind of a forerunner to the 60's TV show Bewitched) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940), also with Stewart, this time doing the snagging, via secret pen-pal letters, of co-worker Margaret Sullavan. Both are wonderful movies with strong supporting casts and would make perfect Christmas Eve viewing.

Other comedies with holiday settings: TRADING PLACES (1983) is one of Eddie Murphy's funniest movies, with fine support from Dan Ackroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliot, Ralph Bellamy, and Don Ameche--it climaxes with a wild New Year's Eve train ride; THE THIN MAN (1934) is the first of the Nick and Nora Charles mysteries--in this one, William Powell manages to stay pretty much soused all though the holidays, and Myrna Loy is terribly tolerant; DESK SET (1957) is a late-period Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy with an amusing Christmas party scene; THE APARTMENT (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine is a more cynical office-romance comedy set at Christmas.

One of my favorite holiday scenes in a non-Christmas film is in AUNTIE MAME--the scene, set during the first holiday season of the Great Depression, is sad, funny, and romantic. GONE WITH THE WIND also has a brief scene at Christmas, when Ashley Wilkes gets a short holiday leave during the Civil War. Any version of LITTLE WOMEN will have a heartwarming Christmas scene, early in the film. My favorite version is the most recent one (1994, with Susan Sarandon), but the Hepburn one from 1933 is quite good as well. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964) is a fully-sung musical, in French, about a star-crossed love affair, with the sad but not tragic ending occurring at Christmas.

There are several wartime films with Christmas scenes (they make for a good tearjerking atmosphere); some of the best are SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944, with Claudette Colbert), I'LL BE SEEING YOU (1945, with Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton), THREE COMRADES (1938), THE WAR AGAINST MRS. HADLEY (1942), and THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1945).

Some non-wartime tearjerkers: ALL MINE TO GIVE is about a family of orphans who have to split up on Christmas day; THREE GODFATHERS is a 30's Western that has Chester Morris saddled with an orphan (it was remade in the 40's with John Wayne); PEYTON PLACE (1957) has a Christmas Eve scene involving attempted rape and murder; there are sad holiday scenes in a couple of Douglas Sirk movies: IMITATION OF LIFE and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. There are short holiday scenes in movies as different as MY COUSIN RACHEL, NIGHT AND DAY, THE GODFATHER, and THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES. I may watch some of the above films in the next few days, but I'll also be re-watching the stories of Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, and a reindeer named Rudolph.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

FLYING TIGERS (1942)

One of a number of films released in the early years of WWII intended as a mix of action and propaganda. This one, from B-studio Republic, doesn't quite match up to similar films from larger studios, but it's fairly effective. Ostensibly, it tells the story of the Flying Tigers, a real-life volunteer squadron of American fliers who were helping the Chinese fight the Japanese just before America entered WWII, but it's really mostly a uncredited remake of two earlier films: the WWI story THE DAWN PATROL (filmed twice, in 1930 and 1939) and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. John Wayne is the commander of the Tigers, a small, ragtag group of fliers who are basically mercenaries, being paid by the Chinese for each Japanese plane and flier they bring down. Anna Lee is the nurse who loves Wayne (it's vaguely implied that they are as good as living together); Edmund McDonald is Blackie, a disgraced pilot who is given a second chance by Wayne; Paul Kelly is a seasoned pilot who gets grounded because of failing eyesight; John Carroll is Woody, a cocky friend of Wayne's who, tired of getting shot at as a commercial pilot for Rangoon Airlines, joins up with the Tigers and makes no bones that he's in it only for the money--he does a little flirting with Lee on the side, who comes to see that he's not really such a bad guy. However, through carelessness, Carroll winds up being indirectly responsible for the deaths of McDonald and Kelly and, of course, has to redeem himself in the eyes of both Wayne and Lee by sneaking on board with Wayne on a suicide mission, ensuring that the *real* good guy will live to see another day. The bulk of the narrative takes place in late 1941, with Pearl Harbor serving as the climactic turning point. Though there is much here that was certainly intended as wartime propaganda (particularly the remarks made about the Japanese, and the graphic shots of Japanese pilots getting shot in the face), this is mostly a male-bonding soap opera. Apparently, very little of the film reflects the reality of the Flying Tigers, although the Wayne character is nicknamed "Pappy," perhaps in tribute to the real Flying Tiger Pappy Boyington, of "Baa Baa Black Sheep" fame. Many scenes are clearly done with miniatures, but they work fine, and some of the dogfight scenes are quite good. Also with Jimmie Dodd (Jimmie of Disney's Mouseketeers) and Mae Clarke. John Wayne's first war movie. [DVD]

Thursday, December 16, 2004

PARACHUTE JUMPER (1933)

A wild and wooly pre-Code action film with a bit of romance thrown in, almost as a second thought. The first five minutes feel like they belong to a whole different movie. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Frank McHugh are Marine pilots who are shot down in Nicaragua; as an extensive search goes on for them, they are living it up with women and alcohol in a small village. When they are found, they are discharged and wind up back in New York City scrounging for jobs. Fairbanks and Bette Davis (with a wildly overdone Southern accent) meet cute on a park bench; he thinks she's a hooker, but she's really an unemployed stenographer and she winds up living with our boys. Fairbanks does a brief stint as a parachute jumper, getting paid to jump out of planes for the enjoyment of paying audiences, then gets a job as chauffer to rich sex kitten Claire Dodd. She comes onto him, and they're caught in a clinch by her gangster lover (Leo Carillo). Impressed by the way Fairbanks takes the situation, Carillo hires him as a bodyguard; coincidentally, Davis also lands a job with him, as a secretary. Carillo has Fairbanks and McHugh take on some shady flights; they think they're running booze, but when Fairbanks discovers they’re really carrying dope, and that some G-men are about to catch up with them, he makes a mid-air attempt to get rid of the cargo and get Carillo busted for good measure. I was pretty sure that either Davis or McHugh would have to be sacrificed, but there's a happy ending for everyone in the last minutes of the film. Fairbanks looks dashing and all, but it feels like he's sleepwalking through the part (not exactly a challenging one). He and McHugh work well together, except for a ridiculously overdone gay-camp bit. Davis doesn't have much to do except flounce around and work her bad accent. With Walter Brennan and George Chandler in small speaking roles. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955)

When I was a child, I read the TV Guide cover to cover every week and practically memorized the listings, so my mom and dad could ask, "Mike, what's on TV tonight?" and I could reply with show names, times, plot descriptions, and guest stars. This movie is one I remember seeing listed quite often back in the 60's and it sounded pretty cool to me (A red velvet swing! A scandalous murder!) but it seemed to vanish from TV by the 80's and has never been released on home video, so I was excited when I saw it recently on the Fox Movie Channel. It didn't quite live up to a lifetime of expectations, but it was worth seeing. The film is a fictionalization of the love triangle between famous New York architect Stanford White (Ray Milland), Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw (Farley Granger), and lovely model and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (Joan Collins), which culminated in the killing of White by Thaw, in full view of the public on the rooftop nightclub of Madison Square Garden, a building White had designed. We first see Nesbit as a very young woman with an overbearing mother (Glenda Farrell); Nesbit models for famous artist Charles Gibson and works as a chorus girl when she is noticed by both Thaw and White. Thaw is a wild, uncontrollable man who is used to getting what he wants, if only because he throws public tantrums; White is older, rich, widely respected, and married. When White's wife goes overseas for her health, White begins to dote on Nesbit, calling on her, paying her medical bills, and eventually making her his mistress, though he does fight giving in to his attraction--it seems to be seeing her in the infamous red velvet swing in his private "playroom" that makes him give in to his passions. This goes on for a while until White decides to send her away to a "boarding school" so she's out of temptation's path. Her incisive comment is that, since he can't make her his wife, he's trying to make her his daughter.

Eventually, their affair ends and Thaw begins to press his hand, albeit in a way that makes it clear that he's a bit crazy. She finally gives in and marries him, but White soon tries to renew his relationship with Nesbit. Thaw, considering White a dangerous seducer who had abused Nesbit, shoots him in the face, stands trial, and is found not guilty by reason of insanity. It is largely Nesbit's ambigious testimony that frees Thaw, but then he and his family abandon her and in the last scene, we see her ekeing out a career in vaudeville, flying out over the audience on a red velvet swing. The cast is quite good all around. This may be Joan Collins's best performance (though, to be fair, I should note that I haven't seen her in many roles--I was never a Dynasty fan), Granger does a nice job as a neurotically unbalanced jerk with too much money, and Milland gives some nuance to an underwritten role. The story's sympathies are with Nesbit and White, and the real Nesbit was still alive in 1955 and served as a technical advisor. RAGTIME, in 1981, features the story in one of its many plot threads (with Elizabeth McGovern as Nesbit) and our sympathies there are with Thaw. The real stars of this movie, however, are the set design, costumes, and color. Every scene is gorgeous and the wide Cinemascope frame is filled with lovely details. This may not be a masterpiece, but it moves along well and would make a lovely DVD package with perhaps an extra documentary that examined the real people and events. [FMC]

Monday, December 13, 2004

DEAD RINGER (1964)

This was Bette Davis's last "old-fashioned" starring role, sandwiched between her "horror hag" films WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, and she makes the most of it in a melodrama that is very reminiscent of her 40's film A STOLEN LIFE. Davis plays twin sisters, Maggie and Edie, who meet up for the first time in 20 years at the funeral of Maggie's rich husband, Frank DeLorca. Edie, who owns a failing nightclub, had loved DeLorca but Maggie stole him away by claiming to be pregnant by him. The child supposedly died within a year, but Edie finds out that Maggie lied about the pregnancy. Tired of scraping by and about to lose her nightclub, Edie invites Maggie over to her apartment and kills her, then trades clothes and identities, leaving a signed suicide note to make it look like Edie killed herself over her financial worries. Of course, she soon realizes that stepping into the shoes of another person is a tricky business, and much suspense is generated as we watch her dealing with old friends of Maggie's. She gets by OK until she is surprised by meeting Maggie's lover (Peter Lawford), who, it turns out, killed DeLorca with Maggie's help. Lawford catches on to Edie's disguise and the last part of the film features blackmail, death, and ironic justice. The supporting cast includes Karl Malden (as Edie's boyfriend cop who almost catches on to the whole deal), Jean Hagen (as a dithery pal of Maggie's), Estelle Winwood, and George Chandler. Bert Remsen, who I'm used to seeing as a crusty old man in TV shows and Robert Altman movies, plays an almost-hunky bartender. However, the whole show here is Bette Davis, who is essentially playing herself playing the twin sisters. She does a great job using subtle differences in voice and manner to differentiate between the two sisters, also getting help from use of a double and very good split screen effects. The last half is a little sluggishly paced but Davis makes it worth staying til the end. The DVD has a decent commentary track that, like the movie, runs out of steam before the end. Directed by Paul Henreid, who was Victor Laszlo in CASABLANCA and played opposite Davis in NOW VOYAGER. [DVD]

Saturday, December 11, 2004

BEAUTY FOR THE ASKING (1939)

This second feature romantic drama is notable more for its themes and its conclusion than for its mediocre execution. Lucille Ball works at a beauty parlor but has a plan to go into business for herself with her own revolutionary cold cream formula. She has been waiting years for her beau, Patric Knowles, a cosmetics salesman, to marry her, but as the movie opens, we see him accepting a marriage proposal from the wealthy but older Frieda Inescort. Of course, Ball is upset when Knowles breaks the news to her, but it gives her the impetus to finally get her business off the ground. With the help of ad man Donald Woods, she embarks on a clever PR campaign to get investors, and the primary one winds up being Inescort, who doesn’t know about Ball's previous relationship with her new husband. The company is a success and Ball gets rich; when Inescort tells Ball that she's afraid she’s losing her husband's affections, Ball oversees a strict regimen aimed at getting Inescort fit and lovely. This twist of the former mistress giving romantic advice to the wife seems straight out of Lubitsch's pre-Code comedy THE SMILING LIEUTENTANT. Eventually, Knowles decides he's still in love with Ball, but he balks when, to assuage her guilt, Ball offers to give all of his and her profits to Inescort. The rather surprising (for the 30's) ending has Knowles rejected by both Ball and Inescort, who become good friends and remain successful business partners.

The rather fuzzy portrayal of Knowles (he never seems fully sympathetic, but never completely unsympathetic either) seemed like a writing or acting flaw until the ending when I realized it was planned that way. (BTW, he winds up marrying a minor character named Eve Harrington!!) Ball is bland, though she looks ravishing in an early scene where she does a glamour pose for Woods--she looks a bit like a plainer, unfinished Jean Harlow. Olivia de Havilland or Myrna Loy would have been much better choices for the role. The feminist theme of women working together is interesting--supposedly the story is based on the life of beauty magnate Helena Rubenstein--as is the seed of an idea about the importance of PR in the success of a product; it's basically admitted that Ball's cream is a hit because of marketing (a fabulous container) and pricing (at one point, Ball says she doesn’t mind overcharging women for it, because otherwise it wouldn't sell). The re-igniting of sparks between Knowles and Ball is abrupt and unmotivated, a fault of the script. The direction is lackluster and the movie is too short to properly develop its ideas. It was still worth watching, if only for its modern ending. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945)

This war movie, released just a month after the bombing of Hiroshima, has, I believe, the distinction of being the first movie to use the A-bomb as a plot device. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard low budget film from the war era, mixing propaganda, romance, and sacrifice with a couple of interesting though outrageous plot twists. Tom Neal (of the great B-noir DETOUR) plays an American pilot who is asked to pull off a secret-agent stunt: infiltrate a Japanese POW camp to free an atomic scientist (Marc Cramer) who has information crucial to completing the atomic bomb. The Army knows that Neal was raised in Japan, speaks Japanese, and also knows something about the "Japanese" mindset, a "reverse, corkscrew way of thinking." The first bizarre plot twist: in order to get into Japan, Neal undergoes plastic surgery so he looks Japanese. He agrees to go through with the plan, feeling he has little to lose since the love of his life, an Army nurse (Barbara Hale), was killed at Bataan. But once he's at the POW camp, with fake identity papers provided by Chinese and Korean resistance members, he finds that Hale is alive. With the help of a Korean agent (Keye Luke), Neal arranges to get Cramer and Hale out via submarine. The second odd twist: the camp commander (Richard Loo) is Neal's old college roommate; despite Neal's new face, Loo keeps thinking that there's something oddly familiar about him. This builds up some suspense in the last 15 minutes of the film as Neal finally gives himself away with an unconscious tic that Loo recognizes. Feeling that Hale could never love him with "the face of a Jap" (even though Hale, once she knows who he is, insists she still loves him), Neal arranges to stay behind with Luke and the two of them face certain death fighting off dozens of Japanese soldiers, allowing the sub to escape and allowing the Americans to drop the bomb (shown in what must have been very fresh newsreel footage). Neal's make-up, derided by some critics, isn't bad, and the performances are adequate all around. The soap-operaish plot devices, though totally unbelievable, are sort of fun and make the otherwise bland goings-on quite bearable. [TCM]

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Two Carl Theodor Dreyer silent films

MICHAEL (aka CHAINED--1924) is about an older artist (Benjamin Christensen) and his apparently platonic crush on Michael, his young model (Walter Slezak), whom he treats like a son. The boy languishes about the house, more or less happy to be the center of attention in the household until he falls for a down-on-her-luck countess who is having the artist paint her portrait. Slezak begins stealing things from the artist, including valuable artwork, to give the countess some money. It also turns out that Slezak has a bit of artistic talent himself, as only he is able to complete the countess' picture by painting her eyes, which supposedly suggests something about real love. In the end, the boy deserts Christensen and the artist pines for him for a while. On his deathbed, Christensen claims that he has known a "great love." If he means the boy, then he is as foolish as the dying Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." However, he might mean the boy's love for the countess, in which case I still think he's foolish, for I see little evidence that Slezak is capable of "great love" for anyone. But I'll admit I found the movie difficult to follow in places, mostly the long stretches in the middle where nothing much seemed to be happening, and I might have missed something. Slezak, familiar later in his Hollywood sound days for playing chubby villains or comic relief parts, is sleek and handsome as Michael. Christensen, mostly known for directing and appearing as the Devil in the silent movie HAXAN, is good as the artist. [TCM]

LEAVES FROM SATAN'S BOOK (1921) was directly inspired by Griffith's INTOLERANCE and tells four stories about the Devil's involvement in human affairs. The prologue states that Satan's punishment is to be forced to tempt humans to evil. For every person Satan is able to claim, God adds 100 years to Satan's exile, but for every person who resists, God commutes 1000 years. That's a twist on the Lucifer story that I'd never heard. The first story has Satan present during the events that lead to Christ's crucifixion; in human form, he is one of the high priests who argues for Christ's capture and he also tempts Judas into betrayal. In the next story, set during the Spanish Inquisition, a monk falls in love with a female student and Satan, as the Chief Inquisitor, tempts the monk into betraying the girl's father (who does horoscopes) and raping the daughter. The French Revolution is the setting for the third episode in which the devil takes the form of a Jacobin who tempts a servant to betray his royal family. The last, and the hardest one for me to follow, is set in 1918 during a war in Finland and also involves personal and political betrayal, with the devil as a monk urging a woman to betray her partisans; here, the human finally resists Satan's lure. Dreyer uses lots of iris-ins and iris-outs, and some tableau-type staging, but too much of the action of the narratives takes place off-screen or is told to us in the title cards, so this falls well short of the Griffith film. The print I saw on Turner Classic was tinted blue for night scenes, and during the third story, a shot of the guillotine is effectively tinted red. Helge Nissen is very good as all four Satanic incarnations. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

STATE FAIR (1933)

A basic plot description of this movie sounds unbearably corny: A rural family spends a week at the State Fair; Dad hopes his hog wins a prize, Mom hopes her pickles and mincemeat win prizes, and the son and daughter hope for some romance and excitement--and everyone gets pretty much exactly what he or she wants. In fact, the 1945 musical remake is too corny and glossy for its own good, but this version (based on a novel) works surprisingly well, largely due to fine acting all around. Will Rogers, a top box-office draw at the time, plays the father in his usual laconic fashion, with his cynical sarcasm almost totally (but not quite) absent. Louise Dresser (the crazy Duke's mother in THE SCARLET EMPRESS) plays the clucking mother at perfect pitch. Their son, Norman Foster, meets up with a sexy carnival dancer (Sally Eilers), has a brief affair, and is let down gently by the worldly but kindly woman. This being a pre-Code film, their affair is presented plainly and unapologetically as sexual in nature--it's refreshingly honest but not vulgar. The daughter, played by Janet Gaynor, another big star of the early 30's, has a boring boyfriend at home, but runs around at the fair with a dashing newspaperman (Lew Ayers). The only real suspense is generated by this pair: Will Ayers give up his freedom for a simple, down-home gal? The fair is presented as a kind of liminal place where anything can happen, and the kind of excitement that such a fair had for much of the population back then is palpable, another strength of the film, even though many scenes set at the fair are clearly shot against rear projection footage. Also with Victor Jory and Frank Craven. Norman Foster went on to direct several Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan films and some episodes of the Batman and Green Hornet TV shows of the 60's. The food prize sequence could have benefited from more development, but is rushed through to give more time to Rogers' hog's shenanigans. Light and satisfying, much better than the later musical version, despite the presence in that film of some fine Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. [FMC]