Tuesday, August 30, 2005


It is difficult to find anything in the usual reference sources (Halliwell, Maltin, etc.) about this B-grade propaganda movie, and the cable on-screen guide only gave it one star, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that it's as good as, and maybe a little bit better than, the average wartime programmer. Filmed during the first half of 1942, the film begins (in a pre-credit sequence, quite rare in movies back then) with references to our then-current involvement in WWII, and sets itself up as an explicit lesson in the importance of military medical units, but the bulk of the story takes place during WWI. Jane Wyatt is a doctor who has "reduced" herself to the status of nurse in order to serve near the front lines with the military in 1917. She works for brain doc James Ellison and proves that she is made of strong stuff during some marathon surgery. Ellison wants to move his base of operations to the front lines but can't convince the brass to let him go until Wyatt makes the case, behind his back, to their commanding officer. Things get tough for the unit, and even tougher for Ellison who, as he begins to develop feelings for Wyatt, has to deal with an old flame of hers, pilot Kent Taylor, who shows up and tries to rekindle the spark. To add insult to injury, Ellison discovers that Wyatt was responsible for their move to the front and his male pride is hurt. Eventually, during a heavy bombardment by the Germans, the three of them are trapped along with several severely wounded soldiers when the hillside they are dug into collapses and traps them with little air and even less food. Taylor and Ellison work together and save the day, and of course because Ellison is more handsome and charming than Taylor, he gets the girl. The movie's framework has Wyatt (in effective middle-age make-up) in 1942, telling her story to some young sailors aboard a ship in the Pacific. At 63 minutes, the movie is well paced and the performers are all fine. The good if small supporting cast includes Walter Reed as a buddy of Ellison's who is killed during a stretcher run, James Burke as a comic relief soldier, and Lee Bonnell as a delirious patient. There are two very effective uses of long panning shots by cinematographer Russell Metty (who later won an Oscar for SPARTACUS), one during a Christmas scene in the ward as the men sing "Silent Night" and the other showing the wounded men gasping for air after the ward has been buried. No masterpiece, perhaps, but behind that nondescript title, there is an unjustly forgotten piece of B-movie wartime propaganda. [TCM]

Saturday, August 27, 2005


Interesting black comedy in which both main stars (James Garner and Julie Andrews) play against type; they do a fine job, but that might be one reason why the movie wasn't a big hit in its day. Another reason is that its anti-war tone (more on that later) may have been out of place in a mainstream movie in '64. Had it been made just three or four years later, the public reaction might have been different. Set just before D-Day in England, the movie stars Garner as an American naval officer and admitted coward who has gotten a snug assignment as a "dog-robber"; basically, as an aide to an admiral, his main job is to make his boss's life run smoothly, both on- and off-duty. This primarily means procuring food and drink (and women) for social function--and while he's at it, getting women for his fellow officers as well. Julie Andrews is a British war widow who is called on to serve as his driver. Garner's glad-handing ways don't work too well with her; the first time he gives her a little flirtatious smack on the bum, she smacks him in the face. But soon he gets serious about her and she finds herself returning the romantic interest. As someone who has lost several family members to war, she warms to this man whom she knows will do everything in his power *not* to be a hero. Garner's boss, Melvyn Douglas, a recent widower himself and in the throes of a long, slow mental breakdown, proposes that a special camera crew be sent along on the D-Day invasion on a public relations mission: to capture on film the first Navy man to die in the battle. It has to be a Navy man so that the role of the Navy doesn't get diminished in the post-war shakeout. No one takes the admiral's suggestion too seriously, but the project rolls along on its own steam until Garner, despite his best-laid plans, does in fact wind up the first sailor on Omaha Beach. True to his cowardly nature, he tries to run back toward the ship, but his gung-ho buddy, James Coburn, shoots at him and forces him back to the beach where it appears that he is indeed killed by enemy fire. Just as the planned PR campaign gets going (with a blurry picture of the running Garner on the covers of all the news magazines), Garner turns up alive at a hospital. He decides to expose Douglas' crazy motives, but Andrews talks him into taking a different way out, one that gives their relationship a happy ending, but is also cynical about the issues of war and glory that have been raised.

Much of the film feels like a slightly more realistic version of DR. STRANGELOVE (the crazy officer, the moral confusion about war), but the romantic elements soften the story's bite. Still, I think it was quite brave to set a movie which questions the valor of war during the one modern war that everyone seems to agree was The Good War. Theoretically, the movie's satire isn't aimed at feeding anti-war sentiments; as Garner and Andrews point out more than once, yes, war is sometimes necessary, but we should quit holding it up as valorous and noble. The screenplay, by renowned writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also wrote the wonderfully bitter and prescient NETWORK), is quite talky but generally effective, particularly one scene in which Garner, in the service of truth-telling, destroys the illusions of Andrew's "dotty" mother, played wonderfully by Joyce Grenfall, who herself has been damaged by the valorization of war. Also with Keenan Wynn and Steve Franken (as two drunken sailors who wind up being Garner's camera crew), William Windom, Douglas Henderson, Liz Fraser, and Judy Carne as one of Coburn's one-night stands. Coburn overplays his part, but most everything else about this movie is just right. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


I seem to going through a WWII movie phase lately, so expect lots of war movie reviews over for the next few weeks. The title of this film, one of John Wayne's earlier war movies, isn't quite accurate. The episodic narrative begins just after the fall of Bataan and focuses on the native Filipino guerilla forces who aided the Allies in retaking the Philippines from the Japanese. Wayne is a colonel in charge of a loose group of Filipino resistance fighters; his chief associate, Anthony Quinn, is the grandson of a legendary Filipino hero (an actual historical figure) who has to deal with hearing his former girlfriend (Fely Franquelli) broadcasting over the radio as a Tokyo Rose-type commentator taunting the Allies. (It turns out that she is actually a double agent, sending out important information to the Allies about Japanese movements.) The central event of the movie is the fall of the small village of Balintawak to the brutal Japanese forces. Beulah Bondi plays a strict but brave schoolteacher from the town who joins Wayne's band; Vladimir Sokoloff is the principal who won't bring down the American flag at the school and, in a very effective scene, is hung by the Japanese in the schoolyard, by the flag rope with the flag draping his dead body. Quinn is captured and winds up in the Bataan death march, though Wayne gets him out and sends him, disguised as a monk, on a mission to Manila. There he meets up with Franquelli and works with her to achieve an ambush against the Japanese during a ceremony at Balintawak celebrating the "liberation" of the Philippines by the Japanese.

The action scenes are fairly well done, though a sentimental side plot about a young student of Bondi's who is tortured and sacrifices himself to save the guerillas doesn't come off too well. The subplot with Franquelli is interesting, and it's the kind of melodramatic sidebar story that would vanish from WWII films in the 50's, when the focus moved away from thriller elements and propaganda concerns and more toward the grittier details of planning and fighting. Lawrence Tierney, who later gained a reputation as a tough noir villain (he's especially effective in BORN TO KILL, reviewed 1/18/04) has a small role as a Navy officer; also in the cast are traditional WWII-era bad guys Richard Loo and Philip Ahn. The movie has a false opening of sorts, about the Allies raiding a prison camp at Luzon (the plotline is not part of the film proper); footage of some of the actual soldiers who were liberated is shown at the beginning and end of the movie, apparently as a way of making it timely. [TCM]

Sunday, August 21, 2005


A strictly routine B-movie second feature, but one that is packed with action, humor, and charm, and a dollop of pre-wartime propaganda. It's perhaps best described as the Hardy Boys meet the Bowery Boys, and that should tell you whether or not you are likely to enjoy it--and it's actually a lot more like a Hardy Boys book than any actual Hardy Boys adaptations ever were. When Dan Dailey (looking impossibly young) heads off to San Diego to join the Marines, he worries about leaving his kid sister (Bonita Granville) all alone in Los Angeles. However, she has what would be called today a strong support network, including Ray McDonald (a gawky but cute kid who is sweet on Granville) and Leo Gorcey (sounding every bit the Brooklyn hood he played with the Bowery Boys). The night before Dailey leaves, some thugs he used to work for frame him for a murder, blackmailing him into doing some Nazi spy business in San Diego. The kids find out and head out after Dailey to help him. Following one tip, about a dog that is missing part of an ear, they all get jobs and immediately are on the trail of the spy ring, which operates out of the back of a barber shop (the spies' password is to ask for a "shortwave" treatment). The shenanigans, alternately amusing and dangerous, culminate in a wild waterside chase involving a stolen experimental Navy boat and a clutch of Nazis who might resort to murder to get hold of the boat. The kids are all as good as the script requires, and of particular note is Stanley Clements as a San Diego newsboy who is recruited by the gang to help out; he went on to appear in over fifty films, most notably as the head delinquent who gets won over by Father Bing Crosby in GOING MY WAY. McDonald is quite charming; I don't know why his movie career never took off, though he did continue in the business as a dancer on stage and in nightclubs. Rudolph Anders, who played many a Nazi throughout the war (THE MORTAL STORM, DESPERATE JOURNEY), is effective as the chief villain and there are some familiar faces in small roles (Henry O'Neill, Joe Sawyer, Ludwig Stossel, Connie Gilchrist). One minor problem is that between the city street sets and the stew of accents (Brooklyn, the South), this movie's L.A. seems much more like New York. Still, this is one of my very favorite B-movies and I recommend it wholeheartedly. [TCM]

Friday, August 19, 2005


I imagine that this film along the earlier IN OLD CHICAGO (reviewed 7/11/03) and SAN FRANCISCO were among the earliest examples of the disaster film genre. At the genre's peak in the 70's (and in the occasional example made since then), the disaster was pretty much the be-all and end-all of the movie, but back then it was a catalyst for further plot and character development. In the beginning of these films, we get to know the characters and their situations; a large-scale disaster hits and the narrative grinds to a halt so we can see what the special effects department has come up with; in the aftermath, we see how the characters prove their mettle, how they change (or fail to), and who must sacrifice himself or herself for the greater good (or to achieve personal redemption). In the province of Ranchipur in India, British sexpot Myrna Loy, bored witless by her stodgy old Lord of a husband (Nigel Bruce), meets up with an ex-lover (George Brent), but soon falls for his friend, Indian doctor Tyrone Power, a selfless and well-respected man in the community. Brent is busy fending off frisky young Brenda Joyce, as well as trying to make sure that Power doesn't get in over his head with Loy. Torrential rains, an earthquake, a broken dam, and rampaging malaria make life miserable for all and force the characters to make decisions that will affect their futures. It's a fairly predictable turn when Loy's character makes the biggest sacrifice and winds up like Bette Davis did in the previous year's JEZEBEL. Power, under dusky makeup, looks splendid and acts quite well, as do all the leads, even the sometimes leaden Brent. The large and wonderful supporting cast includes Henry Travers and Jane Darwell as missionaries, H.B. Warner as a Maharajah, Joseph Schildkraut, Laura Hope Crews, Mary Nash, and in a small but memorable role (as all of hers were) Maria Ouspenskaya as the Maharani who is particularly concerned that Power will be tempted away from the village by Loy. Though the sets and effects look fairly stagy today, they are still effective, especially the flooded streets of the town. Someday I'll see the 50's remake (RAINS OF RANCHIPUR) but I doubt it will measure up this original. [FMC]

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Despite the title, and despite being released well after the U.S. entered the war, this is really a throwback to the pre-WWII pseudo-wartime action movies that were actually romantic triangles in disguise. Tyrone Power is a Navy lieutenant who is pulled away from the P.T. boats he loves to serve as second-in-command on a submarine stationed at New London, Connecticut. He and his commander, Dana Andrews, quickly become buddies and they and their crew acquit themselves well after running into a Nazi ship (disguised as a Swedish freighter), but back home, trouble brews when Power flirts with a pretty schoolteacher (Anne Baxter), not realizing she's Andrews' longtime girlfriend. After a comic misadventure in Washington, D.C., Baxter falls for Power, and Andrews finds out what's going on just as the men ship out on a dangerous mission to raid a Nazi island base. Tensions on the sub are high until the raid, when, of course, the men re-bond in order to kick some Nazi ass. Despite the corny set-up, this is an above-average film of its type, due in part to good use of Technicolor (which still looks great after all these years) and also due to the script and acting. Power and Baxter are lovely and have chemistry, and Andrews does what has to be done in a relatively thankless role; since Power is far better looking, and first-billed, you know that he'll end up with Baxter. The Washington shenanigans are fun and verge on screwball comedy, and the climactic raid sequence is, despite looking very stagy, exciting. The only other major subplot involves old-timer James Gleason, who is trying to keep his heart condition a secret, and the black cook, Ben Carter, who knows Gleason's secret and keeps an eye on him. Harry Morgan (later Col. Potter on TV's MASH) is seen briefly on the sub, and Dane May Whitty has a small role as Power's grandmother. Parts of this were shot at the real New London sub base. Quite fun and worth seeing, as long as you know you're not getting a gritty, realistic war story. [FMC]

Saturday, August 13, 2005


George Cukor directed this one fairly early in his career and pulled off a total bomb--thank goodness he improved enough to deliver classics like THE WOMEN and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY later. To be fair, he's not the only problem here; his leading lady, Constance Bennett, never feels fully invested in creating a character, and the melodramatic story of thwarted mother love was a bit creaky even back then, though the specifics of the plot have potential. Bennett is a Broadway actress who has to testify in a court case involving a former lover (Walter Pidgeon) and it comes out that she is trying to adopt a baby that, it is strongly implied, was the product their illicit union. The publicity surrounding the case causes the adoption officials to deny her custody of the child, which leaves Bennett heartbroken. She goes to Europe to recover and returns after several months to appear in a new play called "Rockabye" that mirrors her own situation. Her agent, Paul Lukas, who has harbored an unrequited love for Bennett for years, urges her not to take the part, but she does, and she also falls in love with the handsome playwright (Joel McCrea), who is in the middle of a divorce. Things go well for Bennett for a time; Lukas arranges for her to spend regular time with her "daughter," and she and McCrea become a hot item with marriage in their future. However, on the very night that Bennett's play opens (and is a hit), McCrea finds out that his soon-to-be ex-wife is having a baby. McCrea's mother comes to Bennett and asks her to let him return to his wife. Will she do the right thing? What pleasures there are here come from some of the actors, mostly McCrea, Lukas, and Jobyna Howland as Bennett's blowsy mother. Sterling Holloway, later the voice of Winnie the Pooh in the Disney cartoons, has a brief scene as a kid who begs a pianist to play "Poor Butterfly," which leads into a song by Bennett. There is a wonderful pre-Code scene from early in Bennett and McCrea's relationship showing breakfast burning on the stove while the two go at it, presumably on the kitchen floor, and she wakes up the next morning in a bed full of balloons. Except for that single scene, the direction is pedestrian at best, and there are many moments of ragged editing and awkwardly inserted shots that detract from the flow of the film. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


More William Powell from TCM's birthday salute. This seems clearly to have been an attempt to create more "Thin Man" magic, here between William Powell and Ginger Rogers, and in fact the two do work up some star chemistry, though they don't quite spark like Powell and Loy did. Powell is a lawyer who admits he enjoys detective work more than being in the courtroom; he agrees to help old friend Rogers get some incriminating letters back from a gangster (Paul Kelly). This plotline winds up being a red herring: it turns out the letters aren't hers (she's just helping out a friend in trouble) and Rogers starts throwing herself at Powell, who treats her more like a kid sister than a romantic interest. The real story involves the mysterious musical star named Mary Smith, who always wears a mask in public. A man who is in the audience of her show "Midnight" (Leslie Fenton) recognizes Mary as his missing girlfriend Alice, and calls out her name, which unnerves her and apparently causes her to bolt from the theater during intermission, never to return. Fenton hires Powell to help find her and Rogers tags along. A reporter who was present at the show claims to know something about the case, but is shot and killed in Powell's apartment (and Powell is wounded). Fenton, who was hiding in another room, vanishes and is immediately the police's number one suspect, but there are other suspects as well, including Ralph Morgan, a lawyer who is also searching for Alice; his wife (Vivien Oakland); the producer of "Midnight" (Frank Reicher), and even Powell's butler (Gene Lockhart). After some Thin Man-like scrapes, there is a fairly ingenious finale in which Powell telephones all the suspects and sets up a nice little trap for the guilty party.

The solution to the mystery feels like something arrived at rather randomly by the writers, but it doesn't matter because the pleasures of this film are mostly in the characters and performances. Kelly's gangster is a threatening figure at first, but becomes somewhat more likeable and less one-dimensional than the average movie thug. Gene Lockhart is quite good as the butler in a change-of-pace role here (though this early in his sound film career, I guess he really didn't have a "pace" yet). Perhaps best of all is J. Farrell MacDonald as the police inspector; instead of being an adversary to Powell, he is more an admiring onlooker, slyly enjoying watching Powell work around the police, and fully collaborating with him in the climax. At times, the comic pacing is a bit too slow, but it always recovers, and there is a very amusing bit with a toilet that plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" when it is occupied. I'm guessing the movie didn't do well enough to justify a sequel or two, but it's certainly fun to watch. [TCM]

Saturday, August 06, 2005

FASHIONS OF 1934 (1934)

Given the title and the fact that this came from Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era, I was expecting an elaborate, vaguely risque musical with peppy fashion models standing in for the peppy chorus girls of the "Gold Diggers" series. Seeing the names of William Powell, Bette Davis, Frank McHugh, and Busby Berkeley in the opening credits was also encouraging. However, the film itself was a huge letdown. Powell is a con-man whose latest front, an investment company, has just gone under. He and sidekick McHugh meet up with unemployed dress designer Davis and they decide to go into business in Paris bootlegging the latest fashion designs and selling them to American companies. After they're caught, they discover that one of the biggest of the French designers (Reginald Owen) gets his best ideas by copying clothing sketches out of old books, so they do the same thing and go into business for themselves (backed partly by American ostrich-feather salesman Hugh Herbert). When Powell finds out that Owen's current mistress, a Russian countess, is actually an ex-girl friend of his pulling her own con job, he gets her to get Owen to help back them, and they put on a stage-show revue to highlight their fashions (most of which involve lots of ostrich feathers). After the show, there are more snags and cons before Owen buys Powell's shop and Powell and Davis head off into the sunset.

The high point here is definitely the Berkeley number, "Spin a Little Web of Dreams," which features semi-nude girls as human harps. Unfortunately, that is all Berkeley is given to do, though there is also a more traditional fashion show sequence which stops the action briefly. Powell seems to be trying hard, but he's just not up to his usual deadpan frothiness. Davis is hardly trying at all; her part might as well have been done by some second- or third-string Warners contract player. McHugh is reliably strong and Verree Teasdale shines in the limited role of the mistress (a part very much like Norma Shearer played in IDIOT'S DELIGHT); Philip Reed is a handsome songwriter who briefly flirts with Davis; other supporting players of note include Henry O'Neill, Gordon Westcott, Jane Darwell, and Arthur Treacher (as, what else, a butler). There are a few bawdy lines of dialogue, such as a patron asking Powell, "You handle lingerie, don't you?" to which he replies, "Yes, I take care of that personally." I realize that some of my problems with this film are due to unrealistic expectations, but it's still hard to recommend this one except to fans of the actors involved. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

VOGUES OF 1938 (1937)

This is an odd little mishmash: part musical revue, part romantic comedy, with both taking a back seat to the Technicolor fashion show which seems to be the movie's reason for existing. Warner Baxter plays the head of a ritzy fashion house; his wife (the wonderful ice queen Helen Vinson) is desperate for Baxter to back a Broadway show in which she wants to star, but she doesn't know that the company is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Enter Joan Bennett, a socialite from a family whose finances are also in bad shape; her family pressures her to marry the rich and older Alan Mowbray, but she leaves him at the altar and winds up taking a job as a model for Baxter. Bennett sets her cap for Baxter, though being a Code-friendly faithful husband, he stays cool until the end, when Vinson's show flops and she, angry that he won't sink any more money into the show, gets a Reno divorce. There are other promising subplots that don't pan out. One involves a rival designer (Mischa Auer) who marries one of Baxter's assistants, hoping to get a corporate spy in the family. Another centers on Baxter's second-in-command (Alma Kruger), who, in a set-up used to better effect in 1935's ROBERTA, gets sick on a European tour; her eventual death proves to be a wake-up call for Baxter to finally take control of his business and his life. In the end, Baxter uses the sets from the failed musical to produce an eye-popping fashion show that saves his career.

Every time the plot and characters get interesting, the movie stops for a musical number or a fashion show. I'm not a fashion connoisseur, so I can't say much about the dresses except to note how colorful and creative they are. The numbers are OK, though only one song, the Oscar-nominated "That Old Feeling" really stands out. One number had some unintentional (I assume) humor, as it extols the virtues of strolling models as "ladies of the evening, ladies of the night." There is also a striking number set at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Baxter is good, even better than he was as the beleaguered director in 42ND STREET, and Bennett (looking and sounding just like Myrna Loy) and Vinson are both fine. Jerome Cowan has a small role as the director of the flop that Baxter backs, and Penny Singleton (later Blondie in the movies) appears briefly doing her squeaky-voiced thing. Enjoyable, if not a classic, and the print shown on Turner Classic was restored and in great shape. [TCM]