Sunday, February 27, 2005


Despite the presence of two Broadway legends (Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse), this film version of the hit musical never really takes off. One problem is the plot, which manages to be both too thin and too convoluted: a middle-aged baseball fan (Robert Shafer), frustrated because his team, the Washington Senators, is behind again, sells his soul to the devil (Ray Walston) to help the team get to the World Series. The catch: Walston transforms Shafer into a young athlete (Tab Hunter) with a powerhouse hitting talent. Shafer leaves his wife (with no explanation), joins the team (as Hunter), and provides the spark for a winning season. Hunter has an "escape clause" with Walston, which must be activated on the day before the pennant will be clinched. Naturally, there are complications. The devil conjures up the sexy but demonic Lola (Verdon) with which to tempt Hunter into forgetting about his escape clause, and Hunter/Shafer struggles to remain true to his wife, and to keep his escape route open while still making sure that the Senators win the championship.

That sounds rather complicated in the telling, but somehow, all those plot strands never really take off to keep the narrative compelling. The acting is bland--poor Hunter is usually criticized for his cardboard line readings, but no one else around him is especially good, either. At least Hunter looks the part: handsome looks and an athletic build. Walston is just OK, not really having the devilish spark needed for the part, and Verdon's character is underwritten. The supporting cast, mostly from the original show, is singularly unexciting, except for Jean Stapleton who provides a couple of fun moments. But the production numbers do redeem the experience somewhat. The best numbers are the ones with the most participants, such as "Shoeless Joe" (performed by the baseball team and assorted hangers-on) and "Two Lost Souls," with Verdon, Hunter, and the denizens of a crowded nightspot. Bob Fosse, who did the choreography, also dances a mambo onscreen with Verdon in "Who's Got the Pain," and they're good but not really sizzling hot. "Good but not sizzling" is an apt phrase for the movie as a whole. If you've only seen this in a pan & scan TV print, you should see it again letterboxed. [DVD]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Routine wartime thriller made vaguely interesting by its situation: Instead of soldiers in combat or families on the homefront, this focuses on a group of Navy weathermen stationed in Inner Mongolia on a secret mission to collect meteorological data to help the troops in the Pacific. Richard Widmark, the only real combat sailor in the group, is the reluctant leader of, or as he sees it, "wet nurse" to, the men after their commanding officer is killed in a Japanese air raid. Alone in the desert with no orders to follow and no relief in sight, the men bond with a group of traveling Mongols. Their trust in each other ebbs and flows until Widmark requisitions dozens of saddles for the Mongols to use on their horses in exchange for their help. However, the fragile trust is broken when, after a rift between two of the Mongol leaders, the Mongols leave, apparently reluctant to risk battling the Japanese. Widmark and his men, with supplies running low, make an agonizing trek across the desert, heading for the sea, and before it's all over, they discover the Mongols are mostly still faithful friends, even getting dubbed the First Mongolian Cavalry. Among the Navy men are Don Taylor, Darryl Hickman, Martin Milner, and Ross Bagdasarian, later better known as the voice of Alvin & the Chipmunks. The beginning of the film, with its unusual premise, shows great promise, but by the middle, it becomes a by-the-numbers story of desperate flight across a barren terrain. The color is nice, especially the blue of the desert night scenes. There are cute references to Tarzan and Harpo Marx, and the frequent shirtlessness of the men is a bonus. Supposedly based on an actual wartime incident. [FMC]

Saturday, February 19, 2005


This adventure/romance set during the Klondike Gold Rush has little to do with the famous Jack London dog story it's named after, and it's one of Clark Gable's weaker efforts from the 30's, but it's also the movie during which Gable and Loretta Young consummated their affair, leading to a out-of-wedlock child whom Young later claimed to have adopted in Europe. Gable is Jack Thornton, a Yukon prospector; he and his buddy, Jack Oakie, get on the trail of a map which is alleged to show the location of a rich gold strike. They don't actually have the map, but Oakie has memorized most of it. In the wild, they discover Loretta Young, whose husband has disappeared and is presumed dead; they befriend her and find out that she has the original map, so the three join forces to find the property. Out to snatch it away from them is Reginald Owen, who follows along with his thugs, and Young's husband (Frank Conroy) who was only injured. Oh, yeah, there's a dog here, too, a St. Bernard named Buck, though unlike in the novel, he is not at the center of the story. Gable buys him, even though he's not broken as a sled dog, to keep him out of the clutches of the abusive Owen. Gable and the dog form a bond which is tested a couple of times, most famously in the scene (which is right out of the book) where Gable bets that Buck can haul 1,000 pounds 100 yards by himself. Unlike the book, there's a happy ending in store for all, and even Buck's reversion to the wild is presented in a Disneyish fashion when we see him with his happy "wife" and "kids." Gable and Young have some chemistry, but neither is at the top of their game. Owen makes for a grandly hissable villain (with a highly twirlable mustache, although I don't think he actually does any such twirling) and Oakie, whom I don't usually like, is pretty good as the comic sidekick. Sidney Toler (the Charlie Chan of the 40's) has a small role as an animal dealer. The last 10 minutes of the movie are oddly anti-climactic. If you have to write a book report on the London story, don't cheat by watching this instead! [FMC]

Thursday, February 17, 2005


The archetypal DeMille concoction of sex and religion, not as fun or as spectacular as his later THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but much naughtier, filled with flesh and sadism and decadence. Set in 64 A.D., the movie opens with Charles Laughton lolling about like a huge baby, fiddling while Rome burns (and, by implication, fiddling around with some young paramours, including at least one scantily clad boy). The rest of the film is concerned with the clash between the powerful pagans (like Laughton and his wife, Claudette Colbert) and the oppressed Christians (like the lovely and pious Elissa Landi). Marcus, the Prefect of Rome (Fredric March) is loyal to the state until he gets hot and bothered by Landi and is persuaded that Christians are people, too. Alas, March cannot stop the feeding of the Christians to the lions, so he winds up throwing in with them and getting sacrificed with Landi in the final arena slaughter. Although there are lots of titillating scenes of almost-naked women and lusty men, the overall mood of the movie is somewhat depressing. The Christians, doomed from the start, seem too passive; the decadent Romans are having fun but none of them except March are sympathetic. This is a movie to see for its parade of set pieces: Colbert flashing a bit of nipple in a bath of cow's milk; a lesbian seduction dance by Joyzelle Joyner (which is interrupted by praying Christians, perhaps an influence on Steven Spielberg in a similar scene in THE COLOR PURPLE); the torture and carnage in the arena. Nat Pendleton has a small role as a man who hunts Christians for money; Ian Keith is one of Nero's troublemakers, spreading rumors that the Christians started Nero's fire; Tommy Conlon has a nice bit as a young Christian who accidentally betrays his fellows. Definitely worth at least one viewing. [TCM]

Sunday, February 13, 2005


One of the last of the Hollywood sex melodramas to be released before the Hays Code kicked in during the summer of 1934, this is a nice little gem, almost an archetypal pre-Code movie. Loretta Young is the "bad" woman referred to in the title, an unwed mother who works as a whore for businessmen who want a little entertainment for the night. She's raising her 7-year-old son (Jackie Kelk) to survive by disrespecting authority, being tough, and getting whatever you can by whatever means necessary. Kelk is hit by a milk truck and, although his injuries are slight, Young (in collusion with a crooked doctor and lawyer) sues the milk company and has her son fake serious injuries. She is exposed in court, her son is taken away from her, and the guy who drove the milk truck (Cary Grant) adopts the boy. Of course, Grant isn't just a milkman, he's the president of the company (who just happened to be driving a truck that day!), so Kelk gets used to the soft life, living in a mansion with Grant and his wife (Marion Burns, a rather bland Mary Astor-type). Meantime, Young keeps up her crooked schemes, first trying to get the kid to steal some booty and run away with her, and when that fails, conning her way (via the old fainting trick) into spending a couple of days at the mansion and seducing Grant. Using a hidden phonograph recorder, she tricks Grant into sex and threatens to use the recording to regain custody of her son, but Grant is nobler than she thought: he has already told his wife that he plans to leave her and go off with Young. This forces a crisis: will Young actually break up the home, even though she doesn't really love Grant, or will she do the right thing for the first time in her life?

The movie is just an hour long, so the event-packed narrative doesn't do much with character development, which is a problem when Grant suddenly, with little motivation (except a little friction against the thighs), falls for Young's scheming. Otherwise, the movie is quite fun. Young gives a full-tilt performance as one of the "baddest" of the pre-Code dames. Kelk does a great job as the kid, and it seems strange that he basically gave up movies after this, though he did some TV many years later. Henry Travers plays a kindly old bookstore owner who gave Young a job and a place to live when she was a pregnant 15-year-old collapsed on his doorstep (in a rainstorm, of course) and continues to look after her, even though he is horrified by her philosophy of life. Russell Hopton is Steve, Young's boss/pimp, and Paul Harvey is Young's shyster lawyer--presented as an outrageous anti-Semitic stereotype. Grant isn't terribly impressive, mostly because he's steamrollered by the smoldering and conniving Young. Definitely worth seeing, especially for fans of the pre-Codes. [FMC]

Thursday, February 10, 2005


This second feature crime thriller is based on a Damon Runyon story, which helps it stand out a bit from most of the other crime movies of the time; it's not a great movie, but it is a little different. Richard Barthelmess plays a small-time gambler returning to New York from overseas; on the ship, he falls in love with Ann Dvorak, and he offers to go straight for her, but it turns out she is the sister of Robert Barrat, a powerful mobster, and the two men are on the outs. On the run from an underworld hit, Barthelmess ducks into the mansion of "old doll" Helen Lowell, a rich spinster who always leaves her back door unlocked. She tells him the tragic story of her own youthful romance, which was ended when her father (Henry O'Neill) shot and killed her boyfriend when he was trying to get into the house through the door, which was locked; O'Neill didn’t like the boy and took the opportunity to shoot, claiming he thought the boy was an intruder. She has left the door unlocked ever since. Barthelmess tells Lowell about his own romantic troubles and she counsels him to do whatever it takes to win Dvorak. Barthelmess visits Barrat to ask for his sister's hand, but they get into a fight; a henchman of Barthelmess's stumbles in and shoots and kills Barrat, but Barthelmess is arrested for the killing. As anyone can figure out from the title, the stories of the old doll and the gambler converge at the trial when she lies in the courtroom to give Barthelmess an alibi so he can be freed and live happily ever after with Dvorak--but in a final O. Henry twist, it turns out the alibi isn't really a lie after all.

In the old lady's flashback, Helen Chandler is the Lowell character and Barthelmess plays the doomed boyfriend. Barthelmess, toward the end of his career, is fine in the role, as is everyone else except Dvorak, who, to be fair, has little to do. In addition to the "old doll" terminology, other Runyon touches include characters named Angie the Ox and Babe the Butcher, and a passing appearance by a grifter posing as a blind man. At just under an hour, it's painless entertainment, and better than the single-star ratings it receives from some critics. BTW, All Movie Guide and TV Guide get an important plot point wrong (as they frequently do in their summaries of B-movies) when they say that Barthelmess and Barrat are brothers. [TCM]

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Competent show biz musical about the real-life performing and songwriting team of Bayes and Norworth, who wrote the title song. Apparently, as with most movie bios, there is little truth in this one, but the story moves along nicely and the performances are solid. Dennis Morgan is Jack Norworth, a vaudeville performer and songwriter who hits the big time as the composer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." He discovers singer Nora Bayes (Ann Sheridan) in a dive singing one of his songs and soon he helps her on to bigger and better things; along the way they alienate a couple of folks: Morgan refuses to do a duo act with singer Irene Manning, and Sheridan makes a fool of club owner Robert Shayne. After Morgan and Sheridan marry, they find themselves blacklisted from vaudeville houses by Shayne; Manning, by now Shayne's mistress, agrees to help Morgan but only without Sheridan. Eventually, the couple part with her career rising as his falls, but a happy ending is in store. Most of the numbers are performed on stages, with "Shine On Harvest Moon" getting the grand Technicolor treatment as the finale (the rest of the film is in black & white) although there is one fun number, "It Looks Like a Big Night Tonight," that breaks out in a police station, with the cops joining in with the singing and dancing. Jack Carson and Marie Wilson provide strong support as buddies to Morgan and Sheridan, and S.Z. Sakall is his usual befuddled self as an agent. Pleasant, with lots of songs and period atmosphere. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Breezy, well-paced second feature which is a fairly successful combination of crime thriller, newspaper story, romance, war propaganda, and comic relief. The opening segment is memorable: reporter Brenda Marshall, assigned to an execution, falls asleep and misses the pardon that arrives at the last minute, so she calls in a story saying the execution went on as scheduled. She winds up in hot water, as does her boss (George Brent), who is trying to get the goods on black marketeer Eduardo Ciannelli. Brent winds up demoted to writing the lovelorn column (a job no one wants), but he, Marshall, and sidekick Roscoe Karns get on Ciannelli's trail and discover that a lonely hearts club is a front for smuggling rubber, sugar, and other items which have been rationed in wartime. There are a couple of nice setpieces: the first is a lively brawl in the lonely hearts hall, and the second is a climactic car/truck chase. I've grown to like Marshall in her B movies and she carries this one quite well. Brent and Karnes are both good, and there is some standout support from Gene Lockhart, Erville Alderson, and Dick Elliott (the mayor on the Andy Griffith Show) who gets in a good line complaining about his assignment: "What a world! My wife makes battleships and I write lovelorn columns!" The title is meaningless (unless if refers to the future marriage of Brent and Marshall). [TCM]