Saturday, April 30, 2005


An incredibly derivative comedy-thriller which shows why the Ritz Brothers are no longer fondly remembered in the collective pop culture consciousness. A killer known as the Gorilla is terrorizing the town; reporters seem to think that an actual gorilla is doing the killings, but notes are left at the scenes of the crimes. Lionel Atwill receives a note warning him that he is next and will be murdered at midnight, so he hires three detectives (the Ritz Brothers) to protect him. Unfortunately, they are totally inept at their job and at midnight, the lights go out and Atwill vanishes. The brothers stay on the case, investigating the houseful of suspects, including niece Anita Louise, her boyfriend Edward Norris, the creepy butler (Bela Lugosi) and a mysterious stranger (Joseph Calleia) who claims to be another detective. It turns out (Spoiler Alert!!!) that Atwill faked his own disappearance and that Calleia is the real killer. As a comedy team, the Ritzes fall somewhere between the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, much closer to the Stooge style of slapstick. They're not really my cup of tea, but I did laugh at their antics more often than I expected to. The screenplay, filled with "old dark house" elements from THE BAT WHISPERS and THE CAT AND THE CANARY, is based on a play by Ralph Spence which had been made into a movie twice before, but the plot specifics are also very reminiscent of a 1933 Chester Morris B-film called TOMORROW AT SEVEN (reviewed 11/17/01) which Spence wrote, apparently plagiarizing himself. Patsy Kelly is fun as a skittish maid, and Lugosi, who doesn't have much to do, winds up being a good guy. Not a great movie, but it's so good-natured that it's difficult to dislike. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


A B-movie remake of the George Arliss film THE GREEN GODDESS (reviewed 3/10/04). The sets are not as opulent, and the actors are all of the second rank, but it's a fairly strong Warner Brothers second feature. Pilot Warren Douglas is flying a husband and wife (John Loder and Ruth Ford) across the desert when his plane runs out of gas and he has to land in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Loder is a dissolute fellow and his marriage seems on the verge of breaking up, so of course some mild sparks fly between the wife and the pilot, but that matter must take a back seat to survival. Luckily, they are found and taken in by Paul Cavanagh, the sheik of the village of Ghatsi. However, he has dark plans afoot, holding them hostage in hopes that his three brothers, who are about to be executed by the British as Nazi spies, will be freed. The only other major character is Cavanagh's British butler, Barry Bernard, who may or may not be sympathetic to his fellow countrymen. The plot and even individual scenes follow very closely the original movie, even down to the same closing line. Cavanagh is fine, but will not erase memories of Arliss, who was more charmingly eccentric in his take on the character. In A-movies, Loder almost always seems out of his element, but he is fine here and does a nice job as the creep whom you know will redeem himself through sacrifice by the end. Ford is good, as is the handsome Douglas. The WWII atmosphere is handled lightly: there is a reference to Douglas having been a Flying Tiger earlier in the war (though nothing is done with that), and the Nazi collaboration charges against the brothers does not extend to Cavanagh, which allows him to escape relatively unpunished at the end, as Arliss does in the original. At just under an hour, it moves along nicely. Even though this is a Warners film, it must be out of copyright because I saw it on an Alpha Video DVD; the print condition is great, which is rare for Alpha. [DVD]

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Interesting reworking of the 1940 Bette Davis classic THE LETTER. Ann Sheridan is the wife of an architect (Zachery Scott) who is rebuilding his business after returning from duty overseas during the war. The night before her husband comes back from a business trip, Sheridan is surprised by an intruder; after a violent struggle, she kills him with a knife and claims self-defense. But there's more to the case than meets the eye: it turns out that the intruder was an artist with whom Sheridan had carried on an affair while Scott was away in the war. Sheridan doesn't tell the police or her attorney friend (Lew Ayers) about this until a sexy bust that the artist made of Sheridan crops up and an art dealer (Steve Geray) and the artist's widow (Marta Mitrovich) try to blackmail her; after all the facts come out, Sheridan winds up on trial for murder. In the 1940 version, Davis is a conniving bitch; here, Sheridan is a misunderstood war wife who married in a hurry, then didn't see her husband for years, and the murder actually *is* done in self-defense, which allows Sheridan to escape Davis's punishment. Sheridan is at her best, discarding the rather wooden mannerisms that mar some of her earlier performances; Scott, whom I've never thought much of, is also quite good. Eve Arden provides great fun, as usual, in the supporting part of a gossipy friend of the family who starts out as unsympathetic but winds up being a voice of reason. The power of malicious gossip briefly becomes a thematic element, but not much is done with it. Though the plotting is a bit loose, there is some amusing dialogue. My favorite exchange comes when one gossiping society lady says, "If I came home to a strange man in my house, I just don't know what I'd do," and another lady replies, "You'd give him 48 hours to leave." Other cast members, all of whom do good work, include John Hoyt as a cop, Jerome Cowan as the prosecuting attorney, and Jane Harker as a friend of Arden's. Not as steamy or atmospheric as the 1940 movie, but it does manage to stand alone in its own right and is well worth watching. [TCM]

Thursday, April 21, 2005


To see what all the fuss is about concerning the pre-Code era, this is the movie to see, maybe on a double bill with BABY FACE. It's short (64 minutes, too short to really do the material justice, but it does move at a lightning pace), has crime, violence, sex, and debauchery, features three standout performances, and is loads of fun. The movie begins in 1919 and moves forward a few years at a time, with newsreel footage and period music to set each scene; we follow the paths of three young women from their playground days through their late 20's. Mary (Joan Blondell) is the school tramp, showing off her bloomers and skipping class to go smoking with the boys; she winds up spending some time in a reform school before becoming a chorus girl. Ruth (Bette Davis) is the valedictorian who goes to business school and winds up as a secretary. Vivian (Ann Dvorak), pretty and popular, gets married to a lawyer (Warren William) and has a son, but finds the pampered life boring. In 1930, the three meet up for lunch and use one match to light three cigarettes, defying a legend that says one of the three will meet with an early death. Soon, Dvorak has left her family to hang out with no-good but handsome Lyle Talbot; she becomes an alcoholic and a drug addict and, when Talbot can't repay a big gambling debt, she arranges to have her son kidnapped to ransom for cash. In the meantime, Blondell has married William and Davis is their governess, but the last half of the movie is pretty much focused on the tragic Dvorak, leading to a wild and woolly climax with a truly shocking last scene for Dvorak.

Dvorak is the standout here, doing a great job going from mild to restless to slutty to debauched. Blondell is fine, but Davis has very little to do--in fact, after the three meet up for their fateful lunch, she's barely involved in the proceedings at all. Talbot is excellent, almost as good as Dvorak as a guy who's slick and charming on the outside, but who falls apart quickly when the going gets rough--though he went on to appear in dozens of movies, he was rarely able to show the kind of spark he does here. Humphrey Bogart and Allen Jenkins are thugs, and Edward Arnold has a small but important part as the gangster boss--we first see him in a distorted close-up mirror, plucking his nose hairs, and it's a creepy moment. The three young actresses who play the trio as girls (Anne Shirley, Virginia Davis, and Betty Carse) are good, and one of my favorite child actors, Frankie Darro, plays one of the smoking boys in the schoolyard scene. Glenda Farrell, Clara Blandick, and Grant Mitchell also appear. A must-see for anyone interested in the minor masterpieces of pre-Code Hollywood. [TCM]

Sunday, April 17, 2005


This docudrama about the development of the atomic bomb is problematic because the writers and director seem to have been unable to decide how to tell its story and wound up torn between two different and basically contradictory impulses: a dry documentary and an intimate tale of the people involved. The movie jerks back and forth between these two approaches and winds up feeling stagy and dishonest. For most of the film, we see the growth of the Manhattan Project filtered through three characters with differing viewpoints: Army General Brian Donlevy represents the military, recent college graduate Tom Drake stands in for the community of scientists, and Donlevy's assistant Robert Walker bridges the two: he's an army colonel but he's also much closer in age and outlook to Drake. The story begins with a group of research scientists, headed by Robert Oppenheimer (Hume Cronyn), getting Albert Einstein on their side to give their experiments with atomic fission some credibility. President Roosevelt signs off on their project and the race is on to develop a useable atomic weapon before the Nazis do. Fairly dry scenes showing the research alternate with somewhat more emotional and philosophical moments between Drake and Walker. Both men have female love interests, but they seem far more interested in their work (and, occasionally, each other) than in anything as mundane as home and family. I have no idea how much of what passes for scientific fact in this movie is real, but the scenes of experimentation are actually the most interesting. Other actors include Richard Haydn, Joseph Calleia, Hurd Hatfield, John Litel, and Jonathan Hale; they each get at least one big scene, but they all (military and scientists alike) tend to blur together behind the starring trio. To its credit, the movie, released just two years after Hiroshima, does deal with the discomfort that some of the principals felt about what they were doing and where it could lead (and one character does die from an accident involving radioactive material), but that is kept in the background, and the military view that the bomb was a necessity for ending the war is never seriously questioned. The opening, a fake newsreel showing a copy of the movie being put in a time capsule, is ludicrous, but it's mostly uphill from there. Interesting, if a bit long and rarely as compelling as it wants to be. [TCM]

Thursday, April 14, 2005

THE WIND (1928)

Classic film from the late silent period. Lillian Gish is a young woman who has come to the barren wastes of Texas from Virginia to live with her cousin (Edward Earle) and his jealous wife (Dorothy Cumming). The land is constantly scoured by hot winds and making a go of it there is tough for anyone--the families of the small settlement are sometimes reduced to eating horse guts. The rather soft and vulnerable Gish, who is a bit high strung and is often unnerved by the sound of the wind, is a hit with Earle and his kids, so the wife forces Gish to take a rough and tumble cowboy (Lars Hanson) up on his proposal of marriage to get her out of the house. Actually, a slimy salesman (Montague Love) whom Gish met on the train also wants her, and Gish considers this option, but when she finds out that Love is married and only wants her as his mistress, she decides to marry Hanson. All the evidence we see suggests it's a sexless marriage of convenience for both of them (she gets a place to stay, he gets a housekeeper). During a particularly nasty cyclone, Love is found unconscious out in the elements and Hanson brings him to his house to recover; while the rest of the men go back out in the storm, Love rapes Gish and the next morning, she shoots him dead and throws his body outside. Hanson returns just as Gish seems to have completely lost her senses; he is able to comfort her and we are left to believe that Gish has at last adjusted to her surroundings and the two will live happily ever after.

The constant wind is a plus, though it is so very constant that I had a hard time believing that anyone in his or her right mind would actually choose to remain living in such a place; I know that it serves a somewhat symbolic purpose, and a case could be made that our over-the-top experience of the wind is a mirror of how Gish sees it, not necessarily how the rest of the characters do, but still, my willing suspension of disbelief was stretched a bit. Most of the actors are good--the florid silent style of acting is pretty much absent from this movie, except for some figurative mustache-twirling from villain Love. Though she's overshadowed by Gish and Hanson, Cumming is very good, giving the most "modern" performance in the movie. Apparently, the original ending had Gish, after killing Love, going mad and wandering in the storm to her certain death. I'd like to see that ending, but I still think that the current happy ending works just fine. The scenes of the wind and sand beginning to break the house apart are well done, as is a creepy scene of Love's body getting buried, by nature itself if you will, by the wind and sand. Overall, not quite as great a film as its reputation suggests, largely because of some plotholes attributable to a lack of backstory--Gish and Hanson's characters could use some fleshing-out--but certainly worth watching. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Minor, fairly predictable melodrama with only Warren William to recommend it. I like William when he plays a total shit (as in EMPLOYEE'S ENTRANCE) or a detective (his Perry Mason movies); here, he's on shakier ground as an oily con man who falls in love and tries to give up his grifting ways, but is sucked back in anyway. We see him in a series of con jobs: operating as a "painless dentist," selling hair tonic, and working as a carny for a flagpole sitter (his sidekick Allen Jenkins). Soon, William sets himself up as Chandra the Great, a mind-reader. His gimmick is that he has the audience write questions on small pieces of paper, burns them in a bowl, then "reads" the messages from the great beyond and answers them--actually, the questions are dumped from the bottom of the bowl to Jenkins, sitting under the stage, who transmits the questions to William, wearing earphones in his turban. This is fun to watch for a while, especially when they trick a small-town sheriff who wants to run them out but ends up a big fan. But soon, William falls for young Constance Cummings and she forces him to go straight. Life as a door-to-door salesman doesn't work out and, behind Cummings' back, William goes back to the mind-reading biz, getting some high society women as clients. When distraught Mayo Methot throws herself down an elevator shaft as a result of William's doings, everything goes downhill until William winds up on the run from a murder charge. William is at his best in an onstage drunken breakdown late in the film. Jenkins is good, as is Clarence Muse as another assistant. Clara Blandick (OZ's Auntie Em) has a small role. Jenkins has the movie's final line, a humorous reference to the end of Prohibition. [TCM]

Saturday, April 09, 2005


This wartime propaganda thriller is OK, but it feels like a rehash of 3 or 4 other movies of its kind with nothing new added to make it stand out. Actually, I had some fun imagining it as a Nurse Sara Keate movie (see MYSTERY HOUSE, my April 2 review), only instead of Ann Sheridan, we get John Garfield. The movie opens with Nancy Coleman, a British spy, heading off in a cab to deliver important information to her superiors. The cab driver, working for a ring of Nazis, attempts to kidnap her, but instead they get into an accident and she is taken to a hospital where she comes under the care of intern John Garfield. She has temporary amnesia, recovers quickly, but decides to keep up the act when one of the Nazis (Moroni Olsen) arrives at the hospital claiming to be her father. She agrees to go off to Olsen's estate, taking Garfield with her. She confides in Garfield and, though he is skeptical at first, he is soon convinced that they are in fact being held prisoner in the house until the Nazis can figure out if she's faking or not. A former teacher of Garfield's, notable psychiatrist Raymond Massey, is called in on the case--Coleman assumes he's a spy too, but Garfield can't believe it. Of course, Massey is too sinister looking *not* to be a spy, and soon Garfield and Coleman fear for their lives. The story builds nicely, although too much screen time is spent establishing the prisoner status of the two leads. There must have been a fair amount of pre-release editing; John Ridgely gets seventh billing but is only seen fleetingly in the first few minutes of the film. Another actor, Matthew Boulton, is given screen credit but never seen at all. The "old dark house" elements that might have given this movie more atmosphere are spoiled as the house is not nearly as old or dark as it should have been. Still, it's worth watching for Garfield and Massey, and to see how the amnesia plotline works out. Also with Lee Patrick as a nurse and Frank Reicher as a creepy butler. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


How this piece of drippy romantic pap ever got nominated for an Academy Award for best picture is beyond me. It won an Oscar for cinematography, which is at least vaguely understandable since the Cinemascope compositions, many of which were shot on location, are lovely to look at. But what you have to watch and listen to while enjoying the scenery is pretty dreadful. Maggie McNamara plays a young woman newly arrived in Rome to take a job as a secretary, replacing Jean Peters, who will be going back to the States in a few days. The two room with the slightly older and wiser Dorothy McGuire, herself a secretary to a famous writer (Clifton Webb)--think of the relationship between Bette Davis and Monty Woolley in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, but with virtually no charm, chemistry, or wit. We follow the women's romantic complications as they play out over several days. Peters defies company policy and dates local translator Rosanno Brazzi, leading to his dismissal; they live "in sin" for a day and a half or so, but Brazzi won't commit to her because he's lost his job and cannot support her. McNamara gets an itch for a handsome playboy prince (Louis Jourdan) and pretends to have lots in common with him in order to get him interested in her. McGuire, supposedly a drab old maid, but looking only a couple of years older and just a tiny bit less lovely than Peters, has pined away for Webb for years and her decision to leave him to go back the U.S. pushes the effete Webb, who discovers he only has a short while left to live, into proposing a marriage of friendship (the character is not officially "gay," but, c'mon, it's Clifton Webb!). All three relationships seem headed for disaster, but in a truly dopey and completely unexplained ending, all three women get the men they want, and apparently get to stay in photogenic Rome as a bonus. The acting is OK, with McGuire and Jourdan taking top honors, but it's the slipshod writing that sinks the movie. Almost nothing that happens rings true to life, and the "fairy tale" aspects of McNamara's story are particularly badly handled. When they all meet at the famous fountain of Trevi in the last scene, we have no idea why everything is suddenly working out for them, when just a few hours before, they were all practically ready to throw themselves off of balconies. Good looking, but empty headed, and a waste of the talented McGuire and the sexy Jourdan. [FMC]

Saturday, April 02, 2005


The fourth and final B-mystery featuring nurse Sarah Keate, creation of writer Mignon Eberhart, played here by Ann Sheridan. This is the weakest of the batch, though it has a promising set-up. During a getaway weekend at his hunting lodge, businessman Eric Stanley breaks the news to his partners that he will need to use their personal securities to shore up the company; this news doesn't sit well with a couple of the younger partners (William Hopper and Anthony Averill) and that night, Stanley is found dead in his room, apparently a suicide--though we know that he was shot by someone else and the gun planted in his hand later. Sheridan, present at the lodge as nurse to Stanley's aged aunt (Elspeth Dudgeon), is asked by Stanley's niece to call in her detective boyfriend, Lance O'Leary (Dick Purcell). When all the relatives and guests are gathered at the lodge again, Purcell and Sheridan do some sleuthing and, during a snowstorm that keeps everyone from leaving the property, they discover who the guilty party is, but not before the body count rises. The snowbound element has some potential, but is mostly wasted, and a needed mood of gloom and doom is never developed very well--the lighting is much too bright and the sets too sparse. Purcell is the weakest male lead of the four (in previous movies, the boyfriend was played by Guy Kibbee, Patric Knowles, and Lyle Talbot) and one of the biggest reasons this short hour-long film feels too long. Sheridan is fine but doesn't have enough to do. Dudgeon is good but the rest are merely serviceable. Only true-blue Nurse Sarah fans will need to see this one: the others are mentioned in my review of WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT. [TCM]