Monday, May 30, 2005


A tight, well-made noir thriller which, despite having a bad critical reputation, is well worth watching. Robert Ryan is a former dock worker in San Francisco who has worked his way up to an executive position with a shipping company. After a two-week courtship, he has married Laraine Day; they know little about each other, though she had dated union leader (and pal of Ryan's) Richard Rober. Suddenly, shady figures from Ryan's past return to pull off some blackmail: Ryan, in his youth, was a Communist and apparently was responsible for the death of a worker during a strike. Commie bigshot Thomas Gomez threatens to reveal Ryan's past unless he goes along with a scheme to foment unrest among the shipworkers and start a crippling strike. More pressure is applied by Ryan's former lover, Janis Carter, who still has a thing for him but goes after Day's young brother (John Agar), not only getting him in the sack but also slowly turning him into a Communist. Keeping all this secret from Day, Ryan agrees to help and a strike is eventually called, but when Agar is killed and Day threatened, Ryan sacrifices himself to bring the Commies down. The anti-Communist propaganda is so ludicrous it cancels itself out and the film is much more fun if you read Gomez as a more typical film noir sadistic gangster. Ryan is good and once Day has something to do (in the last 15 minutes), she's fine as well. However, the best performances come from two supporting players. William Talman is a thug killer hired by Gomez who, in a great scene, sends stoolie Paul Guilfoyle to a watery death and later goes after Day. The real find here is Janis Carter, who mostly made B-movies and retired from movies just five years later. She is excellent, showing strong A-movie potential as the icy blonde bad girl. When she's on screen, you pretty much ignore everyone else. The film is short, so we don’t get as much character development as I'd like, and the ending is quick and perfunctory, but the noirish visual elements are nicely done by director Robert Stevenson, best known for a string of live-action Disney films in the 50's and 60's (most notably MARY POPPINS). The official release title (PIER 13) doesn’t really mean anything; in this case, the more sensational title actually better describes the film. Highly recommended. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Silent star William Haines made the transition to sound films with his popularity intact, but MGM kept putting him in glorified juvenile roles and, at 30, he was getting too old for these parts. Apparently, this film was a box-office hit but his career would essentially be over just three years later. Haines is a reckless playboy from a rich family; he comes home from college still a playboy, which disappoints his rich father, who tries to get him a banking job. Haines, however, is smitten with Leila Hyams, who is engaged to drab stick-in-the-mud Ralph Bushman. This doesn't stop Haines from using every obnoxious trick in the book to try to win Hyams over, basically turning into a shrill stalker. Nothing works until Haines's father dies and Haines, somewhat humbled, turns over a new leaf and proves capable of earning his own living. Still, Hyams decides to go through with her wedding to Bushman, so Haines kidnaps her moments before the ceremony and they finally wind up together. Haines isn't terrible, but he is grating and rather over-the-top, and Hyams is pretty but bland. Bushman, the son of silent star Francis X. Bushman, is good at being drab (I guess that's a compliment). Polly Moran is fun as a persnickety housekeeper, and Marie Dressler steals the show with a brief scene as a rich old lady whom Haines is trying to butter up. The scene works not only due to Dressler, but also because Haines turns down the frantic tone a couple of notches and becomes much more likeable. Worth seeing for fans of Haines or Dressler. [TCM]

Sunday, May 22, 2005

NAZARIN (1959)

God bless Turner Classic Movies for their interesting programming choices. This month, they featured Mexican cinema and spent one night on the films of Luis Bunuel. He is known for his surreal touches and his strong critiques of the clergy, particularly Catholics; this film was done in a realist mode, but does have some stinging anti-Catholic commentary. The handsome and charismatic Francisco Rabal plays the title character, an itinerant priest trying to make his life an imitation of Christ: he has few material possessions, lives on charity (and gives most of that to the poor), befriends social outcasts, and tries to help others do the right thing. Unfortunately, despite his best intentions, he is usually ineffective at best, and sometimes causes more hurt or confusion than he cures. He spends most of the movie in the company of a whore (who has committed murder) and her sister, who falls in love with him. The church and the society look down on him and he endures tests of faith which shake him but never quite break him. He is called a saint and a healer by the common folk, but winds up at the end under arrest and headed for an uncertain future. The last scene is puzzling: hungry and headed for prison, he is given a pineapple by a merchant. After looking tortured, he eats it and the film ends. I like to think this is a positive moment in that he has finally learned to truly accept charity, but who knows? I seem to have, by coincidence, watched several movies recently which I like to put under the umbrella category Bleak Black-and-White Films about Religion (see my review of Pasolini's GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW on 3/28/05), and I'll write up more of them next month, as well as reviewing a couple more Bunuel films. [TCM]

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Charming and good-natured Bing Crosby musical, much more fun than most critics allow. Perhaps they expected too much since Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote it; it's certainly not in the same league as other Wilder romantic comedies, such as SOME LIKE IT HOT or THE APARTMENT, but as a Crosby vehicle, it works quite nicely. In an operetta-like European setting, Crosby plays an American phonograph salesman trying to get the emperor of Austria (Richard Haydn) to endorse his product (he even has his dog along to strike the famous RCA "His Master's Voice" pose). He falls in love with countess Joan Fontaine, whose scoundrel of a father (Roland Culver) is trying to curry the emperor's favor by mating Fontaine's dog with one of the royal dogs. Of course, things get sticky for both the people and the dogs before the happy ending. The colorful sets and beautiful backgrounds (with a national park in Canada doubling rather nicely for the mountains of Austria) are definite pluses, as are the performances: Fontaine is relaxed, Culver is wickedly sly, and Crosby is at the peak of his leading man appeal. The bulk of the movie is told in flashback at a huge ball the emperor is throwing (Crosby calls it a "clambake") and Lucile Watson is loads of fun as a gossipy dowager relating the ups and downs of Fontaine's romance to party guests. Another plus: some good songs, including a yodeling number that Crosby sings on a mountain pass with his own echo. A couple of relatively minor minuses: the dog stuff takes center stage for too long and the mood of frothy whimsy is eventually flattened out by the end--at 106 minutes, it's maybe 15 minutes too long. But if you're in the mood for an old-fashioned romantic musical, this will satisfy you. [DVD]

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Bizarre B-movie propaganda film, ultra cheap but watchable. Ward Bond is a gangster, just out of Alcatraz after a 10-year stretch. He and his buddies (Warren Hymer and Paul Fix) visit a scientist who is offering a million dollars to anyone who can kill Hitler or bring him to justice--his brother was killed by the Nazis and he wants personal revenge. Bond and friends go to Canada, join the Royal Canadian Air Force (the story is set before the United States officially entered the war), hijack a plane and its pilot (Bruce Edwards), and head to Germany. They are caught and wind up in Dachau (presented as essentially just a prison), and claim to be spies with an important message for Hitler. Meanwhile, the Countess von Brandt (Dorothy Tree), mistress to a Nazi colonel, takes an interest in the fliers--she turns out to be the legendary Rosebud, a Resistance worker who helps to free prisoners of the Nazis. They escape (with Fix sacrificing his life for the rest) and Tree gives them a hiding place; though she's against Bond's murder plot because of possible retaliation by the Nazis against innocent women and children, she is forced to allow them to pose as musicians who accompany her to a social date with the Fuehrer. Joining them is an old acquaintance of Hitler's who, while saving his life from an assassination attempt years ago, accidentally gave Hitler a disfiguring scare on his lip, which is the reason he wears his distinctive mustache. In the climax, Bond gets Hitler (Bob Watson), and shaves off his mustache to make sure he's got the right man and not a double; when the Nazis catch up with them, they don't recognize their cowardly leader and they shoot him dead. Bond is killed by firing squad, but Edwards and Tree escape to the States to spread the message they've learned that it's not just one man but an entire evil movement that needs to be destroyed.

The above description makes the movie sound more interesting than it really is. As a scrappy pulp-fiction anti-Nazi adventure story, Warner's DESPERATE JOURNEY with Errol Flynn is far more enjoyable. The extremely low budget leads to cheap-looking sets and a terrible music score. The actors aren't bad, especially Dorothy Tree (who got her start in talkies in a wordless role as one of Lugosi's undead brides in DRACULA), although Bond gives a weak one-note, over-the-top performance. I like him a lot in supporting parts (GONE WITH THE WIND, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MALTESE FALCON) but maybe he just wasn't cut out for lead roles. The tone of the movie, if not quite comic, is light, but a scene near the climax of crying children being lined up against a wall and shot feels startlingly out of place. Watson is OK as a comic-book version of Hitler, and there is something satisfying in seeing him turn squealing coward when captured by Bond. [DVD]

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


In the past, I have found myself immune to the charms of Maurice Chevalier, but I must admit he is quite good in this frothy musical, the best Astaire/Rogers musical that Astaire and Rogers never made. Chevalier seems to be playing a version of himself, a French music-hall entertainer named Charlier. He happens to be the spitting image of the famous financier Baron Cassini and so has worked an impression of the Baron into his act. One night, the Baron (also Chevalier) and his wife (Merle Oberon) come see Charlier's act, but before the two men can meet, Cassini is given the bad news that an land deal into which he has sunk a great deal of his bank's money has soured and he leaves, planning a secret trip to London in order to secure some loans before news of the potential crash can leak out. After he's left, his business partners decide to hire Charlier to impersonate Cassini at a social function the next night, which might be attended by the Minister of Finance. For no good reason except that it suits the plot, Charlier doesn't want the baroness to know about the impersonation, but the partners tell her anyway, so she knows but he doesn't know she knows. In the middle of the party, Charlier's jealous wife (Ann Sothern) arrives, which begins a string of improbable occurrences leading to the last half-hour becoming much like the Lunt-Fontanne comedy THE GUARDSMAN, with the Baroness being unsure if she spent the night with her husband or with the music-hall singer. (In the dialogue, everyone is much concerned about the two having kissed after the party, but the plotting really makes no sense unless the audience translates "kissing" to "having sex.") Of course, everything works out for everyone in the end.

I usually find Chevalier insufferable, but here, he has a light touch that works nicely, and he does an excellent job making his Cassini different from his Charlier--the two never meet, so no special effects are required. Oberon, another performer I've never liked much, is quite good here in her first Hollywood film; she's lovely and sexy and has a nice comic touch. Sothern is fine, but doesn't really get much screen time. There is strong support from such reliables as Eric Blore, doing his flustered butler bit to perfection, Robert Grieg, and Halliwell Hobbes. Early in the movie, there is the very modern touch of having the Baron and Baroness declare themselves as having an "open" marriage (with Walter Byron playing the somewhat effete admirer of the Baroness), but this makes the outrage over Oberon supposedly having an affair with Charlier seem blown way out of proportion. I'm guessing the foolish figure of the not-quite-lover (also found in Astaire/Rogers films and the 1939 screwball comedy MIDNIGHT) was a way to get around the strictures of the Code. I also need to mention the fine production numbers by Dave Gould, who won an Oscar for this movie; there are lots of Busby Berkeley touches, like neon lightning bolts, aerial shots of elaborate dance patterns, and dozens of dancing girls with props. The numbers are clustered at the beginning, with one last "Straw Hat" number at the end, and they are every bit as fun as any of the Warners' "Gold Diggers" routines. Highly recommended. [FMC]

Monday, May 09, 2005


Since the last two movies I wrote up involved airplane pilots, this one will complete the trilogy. The title refers to stewardesses, but they are really just background for the real story of a male pilot, his gal, his pal, and his ego. Dennis Morgan is a playboy pilot, Virginia Bruce is his long-suffering girlfriend, and Wayne Morris is the friend. Doctor John Litel discovers that Morgan's eyes are giving out and airline boss Ralph Bellamy reassigns him to teaching stewardesses a class on the basics of flying. Naturally, Morgan is frustrated staying on the ground and, when a new "stratosphere ship" that he and Morris have been working on is ready for a test, Morgan punches out Morris and takes the plane up himself, with almost tragic results. There is a subplot involving Morris's girl Jane Wyman, who gets into a knockdown catfight with snotty Margot Stevenson. The leads in this B-movie are all fine, with Wyman especially fun in her scenes in the stewardesses' lounge, where the man-hungry angels chatter endlessly. Rather dated, but solid in that breezy Warners way. Also with John Ridgely, Jan Clayton (later the mom in the original Lassie show), and Dorothea Kent. Best line, from Wyman: "The stork that brought you should have been arrested for smuggling dope!" [TCM]

Saturday, May 07, 2005


This doesn't seem to be a remake, nor has it been officially remade, but the plot is very familiar: two men, related by blood and/or in the same profession, fight for the love of a woman. In this case, the two men are brothers and pilots, and this specific set-up has distinct echoes of an earlier Warners film, THE CROWD ROARS (reviewed 7/15/03) in which the brothers were car racers. Richard Barthelmess is the older brother, an airline pilot who crashes in a storm and is fired for recklessness. He takes a job at a bank, replacing his kid brother Tom Brown who has a job as a test pilot. Barthelmess meets up with Sally Eilers, a stunt parachutist, and when her flying partner (also her brother) is killed in a crash, Barthelmess takes his place. The two travel around the country doing their act, and become lovers in the process, but when he balks at marriage (in his words, "Just because you're hungry, you don't have to buy a restaurant"), she leaves him. Of course, it being such a small world and all, doesn't she wind up pairing off with Brown, who *does* marry her. Barthelmess takes any flying job he can, and when we see him next, he's got a limp and an eyepatch, and there is still some spark between he and Eilers. Brown, now an airline pilot, crashes and Barthelmess flies out in a storm to save him. Will Barthelmess make it back in thick fog? Who will Eilers stick with? The movie has some good flying scenes--the director, William Wellman, was a pilot and directed the Oscar-winning WINGS--and some nice pre-Code touches. I especially like fact that there is no pussyfooting around in letting us know that Barthelmess and Eilers are sleeping together; this wouldn't have been possible in the movies a year later. The movie's main liability is Barthelmess who had been a big silent star, but whose career was fading fast in the early 30's. He's stiff and, at 38, seems a bit too old for the part; conversely, the 23-year-old Brown looks about 18 and seems a smidge too young. Still, Brown and Eilers are good, and the sexual tension between the three is well played. Fans of character actors will recognize Grant Mitchell, Charles Lane, and James Murray. Predictable but fun, with a less predictable and satisfying ending. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


I don't quite know how I got to be 40-something without ever having seen a Shirley Temple movie. Strictly speaking, that's not quite true since I've seen two moviesfrom the mid-1940's in which she played supporting roles (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY and I'LL BE SEEING YOU), but I had never seen any of her child star movies of the 30's until now. This, featuring one of her first starring roles, is famous for her rendition of her signature song, "On the Good Ship Lollipop," and who knew that the ship in question was actually not a boat, but an airplane? Temple is the daughter of Lois Wilson, maid to the wealthy, snooty Smythe family. Temple's father was a pilot who died in a "crack-up" some years ago and the little girl has become something of a mascot to the local pilots ever since; she especially idolizes James Dunn, who treats Temple like a daughter. The Smythes don't like the pilots hanging around the house and decide, after Christmas, to fire Wilson. However, on Christmas day, Wilson is hit and killed in a car accident. The family agrees to keep Temple briefly, but plan on shipping her out to an orphanage as soon as possible. Dunn wants to adopt her, but so does Uncle Ned (Charles Sellon), a grumpy old man who is tolerated by the Smythes only because they stand to inherit a bundle from him, and who is happy only in the presence of Temple (and who insists on puncturing the family's pretensions by pronouncing their last name "Smith"). Entering this custody battle is Judith Allen, a visiting socialite who had been engaged at one time to Dunn; gee, if only she and Dunn could patch things up and make a traditional family for Temple! There is virtually no suspense as to the outcome, so a scene in which Temple stows away on Dunn's plane during a terrible storm is thrown in to give some tension to the last half of the film. It's not a bad movie--Temple is good and not nearly as syrupy as I had been led to expect. She has a fine antagonist in Jane Withers, playing the bratty daughter of the Smythes, who steals most of the scenes she's in. Dunn, best known as the alcoholic father in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, is also fine, and Jane Darwell has a small role as the family cook. The "Lollipop" number is a bit strange, occurring as it does in a passenger plane with a dozen or so butch pilots crooning along. I was rather hoping that Temple would wind up living with the hunky single pilots at the airport, though I suppose that unorthodox family situation would have been way too subversive for the time. [FMC]