Saturday, January 29, 2005


Disappointing Bing Crosby musical from the days before he hit his stride at Paramount in GOING MY WAY and the Road movies with Bob Hope. Crosby is fine; the real problem is the screenplay, a hodge-podge of vaguely interesting ideas that don't get developed very well. We first see Crosby in prison, finishing up a sentence for smuggling and playing the lute (!) from his cell. A man headed for the electric chair asks Crosby to deliver a letter for him when he gets out and Crosby, a restless traveler (otherwise known as a hobo), agrees. The killer tries to make amends to the family of the man he killed by giving them a house he used as a hideaway, and for the family (teenager Edith Fellows and grandpa Donald Meek), the "gift" comes just as a social worker (Madge Evans) is about to send the girl to an orphanage. Fellows gets a crush on Crosby and he feels obliged to stick around to help them get on their feet. The dilapidated house they move into is supposedly haunted, so Crosby manages to get some backing to turn it into the Haunted House Cafe, but those plans go awry, and the rest of the movie consists of Crosby trying to help Meek and Fellows gain a financial foothold so the girl won't become a ward of the state. Of course, an improbable romance develops between Crosby and Evans, and despite a daredevil accident, a hospital stay, and a brush with the law, there's a happy ending for all. If the movie had stuck with the restaurant idea (which may have provided some inspiration for the set-up of the later Crosby classic HOLIDAY INN), it might have worked, but there are just too many disparate plot strands which are rushed through in the last half hour. Fellows is appealing as a tomboyish teen and Louis Armstrong has a small role as a musician who helps out at the ill-fated opening of the cafe. The title song, sung twice, is fine, and the first ten minutes is interestingly moody for what becomes a run-of-the-mill musical romance. The DVD from Columbia is one of their better looking efforts, though it's not as clean-looking as the Crosby Paramount movies from the 40's that Universal has issued. Aside from the title song and the depression setting, this has nothing in common with the much more interesting 1981 Steve Martin musical. [DVD]

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Busby Berkeley was a great choreographer but rather surprisingly, for all his style and innovation with dance numbers, he was not a great director. His movies tend to be either solid but drab, assembly-line products (FOR ME AND MY GAL, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937) or hyperactive fantasias which, after their high points, tend to get irritating (THE GANG'S ALL HERE, BABES IN ARMS). The good news here is that GARDEN OF THE MOON, while not a classic, is a well-paced, fun little B-musical. Pat O'Brien is the manager of the fancy title nightclub, located in a Los Angeles hotel. He's a bully who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants; when bluster and threats don't work, fake sentiment does. Margaret Lindsay is his assistant. She doesn't care for his methods and it's unclear why she's stayed with him all this time; there are hints that he feels romantic toward her, but nothing serious ever happens. When Rudy Vallee's band has a bus accident and can't keep their engagement, Lindsay suggests a struggling big band led by John Payne. O'Brien reluctantly agrees to try them out and they become a smash success. Payne and the boys feel this is their shot at the big time, but O'Brien only wants them until Vallee returns, so he actively tries to sabotage their PR attempts. The rest of the movie consists of Payne and O'Brien playing a nasty game of one-upmanship, punctuated by some small-scale but clever and tuneful musical numbers. Payne handles the songs quite nicely and is handsome and charming, though Lindsay is rather colorless. A good supporting cast includes jive-talking Johnnie Davis (who originated "Hooray for Hollywood" in Berkeley's HOLLYWOOD HOTEL), double-talking Jerry Colonna, and befuddled maitre'd Melville Cooper. Real-life gossip columnist Jimmie Fidler plays himself. The best songs are "The Lady on the Two Cent Stamp" and "Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish" by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, and Johnny Mercer. Light and amusing, one of Berkeley's more satisfying movies as director. [TCM]

Monday, January 24, 2005


By coincidence, here's another Bataan movie, this one from a different point of view. Most WWII movies with female characters front and center are set on the homefront (MRS. MINIVER, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY). There are, however, a handful of films about women in the armed services and this is the best of the small bunch I've seen so far (including CRY HAVOC and KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY). It's based on the real story of eight Army nurses who were among the last to leave Corregidor after the fall of Bataan. We first see them after their evacuation, on a ship headed for San Francisco, and their story is told in flashback. Claudette Colbert is the head of a group of nurses on its way to Pearl Harbor in early December 1941. After the Japanese attack, they are routed to the Philippines and spend several grueling months tending to the wounded and dying soldiers as the Army retreats down the Bataan peninsula to a last stand on the small island of Corregidor. In addition to a surface portrayal of their medical duties, we see them bond as a group and we also get some standard Hollywood-style romance, with Colbert falling for medical technician George Reeves (quite handsome, and doing the best acting of his career, I think) and Paulette Goddard getting involved with soldier Sonny Tufts (who does a nice job with the "Kansas dumb lug" stereotype he's stuck with). Colbert and Goddard are the central characters and both are quite good, especially Goddard who was nominated for an Oscar for this role. Veronica Lake, with her long hair up and out of her eyes, has third billing but a fairly small role as a woman out for revenge against the Japanese because of her sweetheart's death at Pearl Harbor. The climax of her story, halfway through the movie, is effective and satisfying.

Critic James Agee, writing at the time of the film's release, said the movie was a good illustration of "what war looks like through the lenses of a housewives' magazine romance," and though that is somewhat true, especially during the first half, there is still some idea conveyed of what these non-combatants would have gone through during the early and very dark days of the Pacific war. There are several effective scenes, including a sentimental sermon that chaplain Walter Abel gives at Christmas. Reeves gives Colbert a "To His Coy Mistress" seduction speech, suggesting that since they don't know how much time they'll have together, they should make every minute count--it works, leading to Colbert and Reeves spending an unauthorized night together in a foxhole (later, against regulations, they get married, a sure sign that Reeves won't survive the retreat). Though we don't see the men in combat, there are a number of well-staged bombing scenes. Given the presence of the future TV Superman (Reeves), there is an ironic reference to the superhero in a scene in which Goddard tells a Superman story to some Filipino kids who then ask why Superman isn't there to help them. One of the best of the WWII movies made during the conflict, well worth seeking out. [TCM]

Saturday, January 22, 2005

BATAAN (1943)

There is no critical consensus on this film; some critics call it the first gritty, realistic portrayal of American action in WWII, while others attack it for its staginess and stereotypes. It's probably fairer to approach it in terms of its cinematic pedigree since it is an unofficial remake of John Ford's classic 30's movie THE LOST PATROL about a small group of soldiers stuck in one location, getting picked off one by one by enemy snipers. In the Ford movie, there are twelve British men facing Arabs in the desert during WWI; here, we have thirteen American men facing Japanese in the jungles of Bataan during WWII. As a remake, it works quite well. The group of soldiers is the usual Hollywood mix of types: a Jew (Thomas Mitchell, who could play almost anything *except* a Jew), a Hispanic (Desi Arnaz), an African-American (Kenneth Spencer, who doesn't get to do much except be quiet and efficient), a naive Midwestern boy who becomes a man (Robert Walker), a grouser with a shady past (Lloyd Nolan), and a commanding officer (Lee Bowman) who gets killed off early so that our hero, handsome, non-ethnic Robert Taylor, can prove himself a leader of men. George Murphy, Barry Nelson and Philip Terry do nice jobs in smaller roles. In fact, except for the rather wooden Taylor and the miscast Mitchell, all of the performances are good, with Arnaz a standout as a jive-talking kid who loves Tommy Dorsey and gets a showy death scene--not once in the movie did I think of Ricky Ricardo. The men's mission is to blow up a bridge to slow the Japanese invaders, then stay behind and keep it secure, which means blowing it up a couple more times, most spectacularly when a mortally wounded Murphy does a kamikaze bit with his plane. Most of their losses are due to snipers, but there is a spectacular scene near the end of hand-to-hand combat, involving swords and bayonets, that is quite graphic for its time. Unlike LOST PATROL, in which the leader survives, here all the men die, with Taylor digging his own grave and firing his machine gun up to his last breath (which we don't see--instead, we get an inspiring message about the big-picture importance of sacrifice, a message which the government probably felt was very important at that low point in the war, but a message which is the polar opposite of the 30's film). The studio look of the jungle and the miniature work involved in some of the bridge scenes are obvious but do not detract from the overall feel of the movie. Recommended, but don't expect "Private Ryan"-type realism. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


A rather ho-hum thriller with a good setting (a cross-country train) and plot but lackluster acting. The fashion world is just agog for silk, and prices are being artificially driven up by a business consortium led by bad guy Arthur Hohl. To avoid middleman price gouging, good guy businessman Neil Hamilton arranges for a large shipment of silk directly from Japan to be sent by train from Seattle to New York, but Hohl and his men are determined to stop it, and may even resort to murder to do so. The bulk of the film takes place on the train, which Hamilton has managed to commandeer for his shipment because it must make it to his buyers in 72 hours. Complicating things are two passengers who Hamilton allows to remain on the train: an ailing professor (Dudley Digges) and his daughter (Sheila Terry); he is dying of some disease that is rapidly paralyzing him, bit by bit, and time is of the essence if he is to get to New York to see a specialist who can save him before he dies. Familiar supporting faces include Guy Kibbee and Robert Barrat; Allen Jenkins has a rare non-comic relief role as a mysterious figure who might be a deadly assassin working for Hohl; Jenkins is totally deadpan, perhaps for the only time in his career. Hamilton can't quite shoulder the burden of the heroic lead, which should have gone to someone spunkier, like James Cagney. It's short and energetic, and it's fun seeing Jenkins in a serious role. [TCM]

Sunday, January 16, 2005


One of the most famous biopics of all time. Even movie fans who've never seen this know the quote, "Win just one for the Gipper." The movie doesn’t live up to its reputation but it is an almost archetypal example of the Hollywood biography, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Pat O'Brien is Rockne, the son of Norwegian immigrants, who saves his money and eventually goes off to college at Notre Dame. In his mid-20's, he's a little older than his classmates but he fits in well and shines in both athletics and academics. When he graduates, he takes a job at the school as a assistant to a chemistry professor and helps coach the football team, but coaching quickly becomes his career and he leads Notre Dame to historic greatness on the field. The movie does show us a bit of his family life, but it concentrates on his coaching: his introduction of the forward pass; his molding of George Gipp, a legendary halfback who died just days after his last football game (the movie is maddeningly unclear as to his ailment, but apparently he had a severe strain of strep throat that turned into pneumonia); his creation of the "Four Horsemen" and their backfield shift. Rockne keeps promising his wife and kids a Florida holiday, and when they finally do get away, he is called to California for some matter, takes a plane (against his wife's intuitional advice), and is killed when the small plane crashes in bad weather in Kansas.

O'Brien is heavily made up to resemble the real Rockne, and he comes off a bit like Van Johnson trying to look like Spencer Tracy. He's very good in the part, but in his early scenes, he looks way too old for a college freshman in his mid-20's, looking more like the father of his teammates than a slightly older contemporary. Ronald Reagan is Gipp, better known as the Gipper; he's only in the movie for about ten minutes, but he does show some star quality in his brief time on screen, and his deathbed scene, even though it’s a chiche by now, is effective. The only other actor to get much screen time is Donald Crisp who is fine as Father Callahan, president of Notre Dame. Gale Page, as Rockne's wife, doesn't get a chance to do much of anything; John Qualen, Hollywood's go-to man for Nordic types, is Rockne's dad; Albert Basserman, known best as the kidnapped diplomat at the center of Hitchcock's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, is Rockne's chemistry professor. There is an interesting scene near the end in which Rockne testifies before a committee investigating some scandalous accusations against college football (imagine, a school giving a star athlete some breaks in the classroom!); he makes a speech defending sports as a justifiable collegiate activity, explaining it as a healthy way for young men to work out their natural urge for conflict. The movie's main weakness (and the weakness of most Hollywood biopics) is its rote recitation of the highlights of Rockne's life at the expense of deeper character development; its strength is that you find out just enough to make you want to look for more. [TCM]

Friday, January 14, 2005


A so-so film noir that falls short if seen as a follow-up to the classic LAURA; this film came from the same studio (Twentieth Century Fox) and director (Otto Preminger), and has the same leading man (Dana Andrews) and cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, who did even better work on HANGOVER SQUARE). Andrews is a drifter who winds up in a small California town. At Pop's Diner, he becomes obsessed with the town tramp (Linda Darnell) who is also being lusted after by many other men, even her fatherly boss (Percy Kilbride). To get a little money, Andrews helps phony spiritualist John Carradine get a big audience for his show and winds up involved with Alice Faye, a sheltered woman with a big sister (Anne Revere) who looks out for her, and an inheritance that Andrews would like to get his hands on so he can run away with Darnell. He marries Faye, but on their wedding night, goes out for an ill-fated rendezvous with Darnell, who winds up dead the next morning. Was Andrews the killer? Or was it Bruce Cabot, the guy she was meeting that night? Was it Revere, who followed Andrews to the meeting place? A detective (Charles Bickford) uses some rough tactics to get results, and in the end, there is an improbably happy ending for Andrews and Faye. Many critics contend that Faye was miscast as the innocent spinster, but I think she does fine, as do most of the other actors. Kilbride, mostly known as Pa Kettle, has a crucial role and shines in it, and Revere is wonderful, as usual, and not given enough to do (also as usual). The film has the archetypal noir look, most of it taking place at night or in shadowy rooms. The writing could have been stronger: Andrews' change of heart about Faye is unmotivated, except that he's the leading man. The Carradine subplot is fun while it lasts, but feels dropped in from another movie. [FMC]

Monday, January 10, 2005


Screwball comedies on a "B" budget don't generally work since they need top-notch writing and acting to come off well, but this one from RKO is better than most; even if it doesn't quite hold together, individual moments are very funny. The parents of 10-year-old Joan Carroll are seeking a divorce (for the third time) and they're squabbling over custody; the judge decides she should be kept by a neutral party until the parents sort things out, so legal secretary Ruth Warrick gets the girl. The rich parents are adamant about keeping the issue from the press, who are snooping around the courtroom, so Warrick takes Carroll off to an isolated lakeside resort. However, a detective follows and starts to piece things together. Also complicating matters is Edmund O'Brien, a reporter who, with no encouragement, has fallen head over heels for Warrick at first sight (just as these things happen in these kinds of comedies). He figures out what's going on and heads out to the lodge to try to help, followed by Warrick's jealous boyfriend (Robert Smith). Disguises, mistaken identities, and car chases lead to the predictable happy ending. O'Brien and Warrick aren't exactly known for their comedy work, but they do alright. Carroll (Agnes in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) is quite good, as is Eve Arden as a reporter who follows O'Brien out to the lodge and passes herself off as Warrick's Southern sister, Swannee Rivers. Smith, who has very few credited roles aside from this, comes off well as a handsomer Eddie Bracken. However, Franklin Pangborn and his birdwatching group almost steal the movie, especially in the scene where they perform a birdsong symphony for O'Brien, whom they believe is Dr. Stanley, the famous African explorer. There are a number of running gags, some better than others. The resort desk bell that doesn't ring (except when no one expects it to) is fun; Carroll's penchant for putting tacks on chairs wears less well; the movie opens and closes on a train where O'Brien irritates everyone by chanting the name of a famous baseball player over and over again in rhythm with the train (Heinie Menush, Heinie Menush, Heinie Menush...). Actors that will be recognized by classic movie buffs include Charles Lane, John Miljan, George Cleveland, George Chandler, and Almira Sessions, all of whom get at least one good bit of funny business. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

SPEED (1936)

Perhaps the worst movie James Stewart ever made. Actually, for a B-level second feature, I guess it's about average, but the presence of Stewart raises expectations, unrealistically as it turns out. Stewart works for Emery Motors as a mechanic and test driver who is also working, with his buddy Ted Healy, on a new-fangled carburetor. Wendy Barrie is a newly hired publicist whom Stewart takes a shine to as he shows her around the plant. Class conflicts arise when white collar engineer Weldon Heyburn whisks her away to his offices and Stewart is barred from following. Una Merkel plays against type as a smart female executive who is sweet on Heyburn but is concerned that her new status has damaged her relationship with him--she actually wonders out loud if women should be climbing so far up the business ladder! To complete the romantic shenanigans, Healy makes time with an addle-headed secretary (Patricia Wilder). When the first test of the carburetor (at the Indy 500) is ruined by an accident (which puts Healy in a wheelchair for the rest of the movie), Stewart is forced to work with Heyburn on getting the carburetor in shape for another test at the Utah salt flats. This time, it's Stewart who is put in mortal danger through an accident and Heyburn gets to show that he's an OK guy by getting Stewart to a hospital in the nick of time. All the romances work out in the end, with an added bonus when it’s revealed that Barrie is actually the niece of the car company's owner (Ralph Morgan). Silly, obvious, and badly edited to boot, with several awkward fade-out scenes. Some of the racing footage is quite good, especially the shots of the almost futuristic car as it zips through crowds of onlookers at the salt flats. [TCM]

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Full disclosure: I loved Abbott & Costello movies when I was a kid; for the most part, I can't stand them now. I've tried re-watching some and usually wind up bailing out about 15 minutes in--particularly disappointing was JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, a horrible piece of junk which was one of my favorites when I was 9. This one, however, is one I had never seen before and I found it quite tolerable, perhaps because it's different from most of their films in a couple major ways: it is unusually plot-heavy and Abbott and Costello actually play relatively fleshed-out characters. In 1780, during a party at an estate, Costello (playing a tinker) and Marjorie Reynolds are mistakenly accused of being traitors, even though Costello has a letter from George Washington noting his loyalty and bravery. They are shot and killed and their bodies dumped down a well, and they are cursed to remain restless spirits unless their innocence is established. We see them return as ghosts who cannot leave the estate. In the present day, a group of folks come to stay at the restored house. The ghosts try their best to "haunt" the group in hopes that they will discover Washington's letter and allow them to get on to the afterlife. After some haunted house shenanigans, a seance, and a car chase with cops, the letter is found and the ghosts are freed.

Several sources claim that Abbott and Costello weren't on speaking terms during the making of this film, and it's true that the two have almost no scenes together as a team. Costello is clearly the main character; Abbott has a dual role, as a butler in the past, and as the butler's descendent, a psychiatrist, in the present, and he's surprisingly good in both parts, actually allowed to do a little acting rather than just reacting. Costello still mostly does his usual shtick, in slightly subdued form. Reynolds, Crosby's sidekick in HOLIDAY INN, is good, as is Gale Sondergaard as a psychic who presides at the seance. Also notable are Binnie Barnes and Donald MacBride. B-movie actor John Shelton, as a nervous man on the verge of a breakdown, shows why he never broke out of B-movies. The plot is interesting--one writer at IMDb notes that this is a ghost story told from the point of view of the ghosts rather than the haunted--and some fun is had with the attempted haunting (though the "rules" about what the ghosts can and can't do are inconsistent). The seance scene is effective, and the special effects in the last scene, as Costello and Reynolds go off to their heavenly rewards, are nice. Barnes gets one of the best lines, saying, upon meeting a severe Sondergaard, "Didn't I see you in Rebecca?" I can add this to the short list of A&C movies that I can, as an adult, make it all the way through, the others being HOLD THAT GHOST and A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. [TCM]