Thursday, June 30, 2005


Despite the title, this isn't really a western, but a historical drama about cavalry men Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) and their pursuit of activist abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey). All these characters are based on real people, but I must admit know next to nothing about the Civil War era so I can't judge how accurate the storyline is or how closely the characters hew to the historical figures--knowing Hollywood, I assume little fidelity. We first meet Flynn and Reagan as fresh West Point graduates when they get into a fight with fellow cadet Van Heflin over the abolition movement; Heflin is a follower of John Brown, a religious fanatic who wants the slaves freed immediately even if it involves widespread bloodshed. Heflin is discharged and joins up with Brown; Flynn and Reagan wind up stationed in Kansas, which is split over the issue of whether or not to enter the Union as a slave state. Brown is violently fomenting dissent and the cavalry is trying to keep things under control. Between run-ins with the Brown clan (including son Gene Reynolds, who winds up on Flynn's side) and his followers, there is time for a typical Hollywood romantic triangle with Flynn and Reagan vying for the hand of Olivia de Havilland, daughter of the man who hopes to establish a safe passage to Santa Fe (hence the rather misleading title). There is comic relief with Alan Hale and Guinn Williams as wagon train workers who quite improbably join up with the cavalry. The politics of the situation are handled delicately and therefore confusingly: Brown is portrayed as a crazy killer who, when he is able to free slaves, basically leaves them high and dry, but de Havilland speaks a few words in defense of the man, saying that he has "great and good reasons" for his actions; our heroes aren't allowed to express many political opinions, but do note that abolition must come gradually and peacefully rather than suddenly and violently. In trying to offend no one, the movie muddles its politics and history beyond repair. But taken as a rousing "boy's adventure" movie, it definitely succeeds. Standouts in the large supporting cast include William Lundigan as de Havilland's brother, Henry O'Neill as the father, Ward Bond as an abolitionist, and John Litel as a slaver. The three leads (Flynn, Reagan, and Massey) are fine, but all wind up playing cardboard cut-out versions of historical figures. Given that caveat, I would recommend this to fans of the era's action films. [TCM]

Friday, June 24, 2005


Released just a few months before Pearl Harbor, this may have been intended as pro-military propaganda, but it works better as a light buddy comedy in the old Cagney/O'Brien tradition. The film follows three men who join the Army's Parachute Corps in Fort Benning, Georgia: Robert Preston is an Ivy League football star, and Buddy Ebsen is a hayseed farmboy, but the focus is on Edmond O'Brien as a young man on the road to alcoholism who joins to get rid of his self-esteem problem; it turns out he's the estranged son of the Corps' commander (Robert Barrat). The three meet and become friends on a train to Fort Benning, where they also have a run-in with their soon-to-be instructor (Harry Carey) and his daughter (Nancy Kelly). O'Brien and Preston become rivals for the hand of Kelly; Carey, all crusty and hard-boiled on the outside, turns out to be mostly a softie who inspires great loyalty among his charges. Richard Cromwell plays a twitchy coward who goes nuts up in the sky just as he's supposed to make his first jump. O'Brien is instrumental in helping Carey handle the situation, but he's also afraid to jump, so the rest of the movie is about how O'Brien gains self-confidence so he can make the jump, regain his father's respect, and get the girl. The performances are fine (and you can see the seed of Prof. Harold Hill in Preston's cocky character) with Paul Kelly providing strong support as Carey's assistant. Nancy Kelly (no relation) is best known as the neurotic mother in THE BAD SEED. Ebsen is his usual gangly self and gets to do a novelty dance to "Turkey in the Straw." The film was shot partly at Fort Benning, and there is plenty of footage of men from the real battalion in parachute action. An RKO B-movie that's almost up to the standard of Warner Brothers. [TCM]

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


A slightly better Philo Vance movie than BISHOP (reviewed 6/19/05). This one has more comedy than most Vance films, which takes some getting used to, but the light tone works. So does the lead performance of Paul Lukas as Vance. Most critics don't like his portrayal, and I agree that his thick Hungarian accent is quite out of place for the New York City playboy that Vance is supposed to be, but he fleshes out the part better than Rathbone did, though he's no William Powell. This time around, Vance is called in to help protect wealthy Donald Cook, who is threatened by letter with death that night if he goes to the family casino. He goes and, despite protection, is poisoned but recovers. However, his wife, an old friend of Vance's who is unhappy in her marriage, is poisoned at the house and dies. There are other deaths and the discovery of suspicious experiments with "heavy water" before Vance solves the case. The supporting cast includes Rosalind Russell, secretary for the family, who becomes both a sidekick and a mild romantic interest for Vance; Alison Skipworth as the family matriarch; Eric Blore as Vance's befuddled butler; Ted Healy does a fine comic turn as a policeman who is always one step behind Vance, and Louise Fazenda and Leo G. Carroll as the maid and butler make positive impressions in their brief time on screen. [TCM]

Sunday, June 19, 2005


The detective Philo Vance, created by writer S. S. Van Dine, was featured in over a dozen movies from the late 20's through the 40's, but he seems to be the sleuth that time forgot, maybe because so many actors played him with such a wide range of approaches that there was not a consistent portrayal in the public mind. He's a little like the Falcon or Nick Charles (and William Powell did play him early in his career) in that he's a rich man who helps the police track down killers, but no "hook" ever developed (like the Falcon's jewel thief past or Nick's wife Nora) to make him stand out. Nevertheless, many of the Vance movies are fun--though none that I've seen are as good as the books. This one has a fascinating set-up: people who live in the neighborhood of the Dillards are getting bumped off in ways that suggest that nursery rhymes are the inspiration for the dastardly deeds (a young man nicknamed Cock Robin is killed by an arrow and a man dies due to a fall from a wall like Humpty Dumpty), and the killer leaves clues in a series of notes signed The Bishop--is he a religious fanatic or a chess enthusiast? The plot is intriguing and fairly easy to follow, and sticks close to the book. The supporting cast is OK (with Roland Young as the chief suspect and Leila Hyams as the attractive young damsel who winds up in distress) and the directing style is occasionally interesting, especially the presentation of one murder which involves the toppling of a house of cards. However, Basil Rathbone is rather bland as Vance. This may be largely the fault of the writers, but Rathbone doesn't help by sleepwalking through the proceedings. Ironically, Vance is compared at least once in the movie to Sherlock Holmes, the role that Rathbone would make his own a few years later. There are separate credits for "screen direction" and "stage direction" which may explain why the moody non-dialogue scenes work best. The lack of background music doesn't help the static feel of the movie's pace, though the silence is sometimes effective. You will probably guess who the killer is, but the way he meets his fate is surprising. Other Vance movies I've reviewed: THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (3/9/03); THE DRAGON MURDER CASE (5/30/04); CALLING PHILO VANCE (10/14/03) [TCM]

Saturday, June 18, 2005


With solid mainstream musical performers such as Dennis Morgan or Betty Grable, this B-level showbiz musical might have come off. But instead the more outsized and untamed talents of Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda are confined by the average material, weak direction, and relatively low budget and it all comes off as a rather sad and dismal affair. Marx and Miranda are a struggling showbiz couple, not married but engaged for years (like Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine in GUYS AND DOLLS) and therefore, this being made under the constraints of the Production Code, living in two separate hotel rooms, and about to get evicted from them. Marx decides to retire from performing and serve as Miranda's agent, and he promptly gets her a job as a Latin songbird at the Copacabana. However, there's a hitch: the boss (Steve Cochran) wants a French singer as well, so in order not to blow his cover, Marx has Miranda pose as the veil-wearing Mlle. Fifi. Carmen is a success, but Fifi is an even bigger hit, and they must continue the charade to stay employed. Romantic entanglements arise: 1) Cochran is apparently in love with Fifi while, 2) his loyal secretary (Gloria Jean) pines away for Cochran and, 3) singer Andy Russell, who seems incapable of much passion for anyone, is mistaken for an admirer of Jean's, which makes Cochran jealous. Of course, after some lame attempts at farce and some tepid production numbers, all is righted at the fade out. In the beginning, I was embarrassed for Marx, who seems to know just how far he's sunk, but by the middle, he redeems himself a bit with a brief dual role number; Marx, as the agent, introduces Marx, in his 30's greasepaint-mustache persona, as a comic singer doing the amusing "Go West, Young Man." Miranda is fine; Cochran isn't bad, really, but he was better at the tough guy roles he did later in his career. Russell and Jean are bland as can be and the specialty acts sprinkled through the film are forgettable. Famous gossip columnist Earl Wilson has a cameo. [DVD]

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of the Warner Brothers B-movie unit that cranked out dozens of unpretentious and entertaining low-budget films in the 30's and 40's. This, however, is one of their rare missteps. Usually, these movies which came in at 60 to 75 minutes sped along quite nicely, so that even if the movie had its weak moments, it was easy for the viewer to get past them because a funny or exciting scene was just around the corner. This one is just a smidge over an hour but feels much longer. The story has potential: Boris Karloff is a French brain surgeon who is sentenced to ten years of hard work on Devil's Island, the notorious penal colony in French Guiana in South America. His crime, operating on a mortally wounded criminal, is clearly based on the case of the real-life Dr. Mudd who served jail time for attending to John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln's assassination, and if the movie had delved into the moral ambiguities of such a situation, it might have been more interesting. However, after Karloff is sentenced, the movie becomes a rather static tale of men surviving the best they can under brutal conditions on the island, made worse by the cruel hand of overseer James Stephenson. When an already weak prisoner dies on work detail, Karloff is involved in a small uprising against the guards and the group is sentenced to death; however, when Stephenson's little daughter is badly hurt in an accident, he strikes a deal with Karloff to save their lives if Karloff will operate. Karloff does, but Stephenson reneges on his deal and executes one of the men. A daring escape follows, with the men helped by Stephenson's wife (Nedda Harrigan) who feels her husband has become too tyrannical. In the end, Karloff is saved and Stephenson is arrested on corruption charges. The story proceeds in predictable steps, with little humor and even less real excitement. Karloff and Stephenson are OK, but the supporting cast (which is often the saving grace of many a B-film) is completely unmemorable. The main musical theme is haunting the first five or six times it's heard, but by time 20, it's irritating. Not exactly terrible, but difficult to recommend. [TCM]

Saturday, June 11, 2005


This little-known film is built on the warhorse narrative frame of a romantic triangle between two close buddies and the girl who threatens to tear apart their friendship. However, the acting and the directorial style (not to mention the youthful pulchritude of leading man Joel McCrea) make this one stand out. McCrea and William Gargan play college friends and teammates on Dartmouth's winning football team. After graduation, Gargan goes the traditional career route and becomes a sports writer. McCrea, however, is seduced by promises of quick money (made by the comically shady Walter Catlett) to be garnered through endorsements and public appearances. Within two years, McCrea is out of work and reduced to hocking his gold football pin for a plane ticket to make a nostalgic visit to the latest Dartmouth game. The two old friends meet by accident and Gargan gets McCrea a job writing a joint column with him for the sports page. Soon, Marian Marsh, Gargan's unenthusiastic squeeze, gets the hots for McCrea and vice versa, which leads to a nasty split between the two pals. McCrea goes back to Catlett and forges a name in pro wrestling, but faces a dilemma when he is asked to take a dive with Gargan and Marsh in the audience. Will he do the right thing?

Given wrestling's reputation, it's hard to care much about the ethical fine points of the sport, but the climactic match is well shot and even works up a little suspense. In fact, the director, Dudley Murphy, best known for co-directing the avant-garde short "Ballet Mecanique" in 1924, makes the entire movie (nicely paced at just over an hour) fun to watch, with fluid camerawork and tricky shots abounding. McCrea, shirtless and provocatively posed in the boxing ring and in an early locker-room scene, is very good, as is Gargan, who isn't bad looking himself. Sturdy support is offered by Catlett, Skeets Gallagher as a sight-challenged photographer who accidentally gets the shot of a lifetime at a car race, and the always amusing Robert Benchley as an inept (and sometimes inebriated) sports announcer. The passive, wooden Marsh is the only disappointment in the cast. Film buffs will enjoy seeing Clarence Wilson and George Chandler in small roles. This early David Selznick production isn't much loved by the critics, but if it ever shows up again on Turner Classic, it's worth a look. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


An odd little Foreign Legion melodrama which might have had worked better with more exotic personalities in the lead roles. Victor Jory is a doctor at a Legion post; after he treats the much-despised commander (Robert Barrat) for heartburn, the commander is found dead the next morning and Jory is accused of murder. Jory's friend and fellow legionnaire David Manners knows that Jory couldn't have done it--and we know that Barrat's servant (J. Carrol Naish) did it--and when Jory is sentenced to death, Manners helps Jory escape. He winds up under an assumed name, taking care of outcasts at Fort Zamba, and falls in love with Loretta Young, niece of the local missionary. As it happens, Young is Manners' girlfriend, and things come to a head when police chief C. Henry Gordon figures out that Jory is a fugitive; Jory winds up back at Manners' fort, risking his freedom by treating the men for a deadly fever. Together, Manners and Jory trick the real killer into thinking he's dying of the fever so he'll confess to the crime. On top of this, the fort is under attack, and Young winds up in the midst of it all. There's a happy ending for Jory, a less happy one for Manners. Jory is not leading man material and, though he's not bad, he doesn't have the charm or appeal that someone like Douglas Fairbanks or Gary Cooper would have brought to the role. Young and Manners are fine, and it's nice to see Bela Lugosi in a non-horror role as a military prosecutor. Herbert Mundin is a comic relief sidekick, but I kept wishing Frank McHugh had the part instead. When you spend much of the movie imagining other actors in major roles, you know there's a problem. BTW, the title is meaningless. [FMC]

Monday, June 06, 2005


No one could beat Warner Brothers as putting together solid, entertaining B-movies. This RKO entry helps prove that point. Lee Tracy and Gloria Stuart are postal service inspectors who are assigned to crack a case involving a group of mail thieves who have murdered a driver and stolen some money. The money is sent from New York to Los Angeles to a Jane Turner, in care of General Delivery; Tracy and Stuart track the letter and Stuart follows Turner when she picks it up, hoping she will lead them to the big boss (Paul Guilfoyle, father of the actor who plays Brass on TV's "C.S.I."), but it turns out that this Jane Turner is not a gangster's moll but a woman whose boyfriend's job is in trouble because of financial irregularities. She wants to use the money to save his job. Meanwhile, the fake Jane Turner shows up at the post office, and Tracy snags her and one of her accomplices. Eventually, the bad guys are led to the real Jane Turner's apartment where the relatively exciting climax occurs. I don't typically care much for Lee Tracy (an understatement), but he is not as offensively shrill and grating as usual here. Gloria Stuart is quite good (and quite lovely) in her role. The two are intended to have some screwballish appeal as a couple who, despite surface antagonism, are attracted to each other, and they have some fun moments, but overall, I don't really buy it. Had this been a Warners movie, the writing would have been a little stronger (and the sets wouldn't have looked so cheap) and it would have worked better overall. I like the throwing-in of two subplots. One involves the very funny vaudeville actress Irene Franklin as one member of a team of ladies who are running a fake mail-order bride scheme; Dick Elliot (the mayor of Mayberry in the early Andy Griffith shows) is a rustic sheepherder who shows up to make Franklin make good on her promise. The other plotline has Tracy turn all sensitive as he gives money to an old man who haunts General Delivery waiting for financial help from his son, who seems to have forgotten all about his dad. Barbara Pepper, who later played Doris Ziffel on "Green Acres," also appears. Not too bad, but considering it's only 65 minutes, it felt a little long. Still, I'm glad to have seen it for a chance to see Gloria Stuart--she's been so good in everything I've seen her in, I have to wonder why she got stuck in B-movies and supporting parts, until her comeback in TITANIC. [TCM]

Friday, June 03, 2005


A B-movie remake of LIFE BEGINS (1932, reviewed 1/02/04). The plot is identical to the original, so I can essentially just paste in my review of the original movie and change the names of the actors: Gale Page presides over a ward of "problem" maternity cases. First and foremost is convicted killer Geraldine Fitzgerald, brought to the ward in handcuffs; her boyish husband, Jeffrey Lynn, is nervous (and not quite as hysterical as Eric Linden was in the original) and though the cops don't want him staying with her, he manages to sneak in a couple of times. Other expectant mothers in the ward include Spring Byington, an old pro at childbirth with six previous kids, and Gladys George as a crusty vaudeville performer who is expecting twins and doesn't want to keep them. Before she gives birth, she finds out she's been dumped by her partner. She puts gin in her "candy" box, gets drunk, and behaves callously toward Fitzgerald, but by the end of the movie, she gets all nurturing and decide to keep the kids. Fay Helm is a psycho case who wanders through the wards, stealing babies. Johnnie Davis is a nervous father sent off on a fool's errand (to buy a can of "Twilight Sleep") to keep him out of the nurses' hair. Others in the large supporting cast include Eve Arden as a nurse, Henry O'Neill and John Litel as doctors, Gloria Holden as a woman with a problem delivery, and Nanette Fabray & Johnny Downs as a young couple whose families disapprove of their marriage. As in the original, none of the mothers look at all pregnant (an onscreen taboo of the era, I guess). Fitzgerald and Lynn are a letdown as the leads, but George, Davis, Byington, and Arden are all fun to watch. Overall, I'd have to recommend the 1932 version over this one, though this is certainly tolerable. [TCM]