Wednesday, September 28, 2005


A fairly effective WWII propaganda film which fictionalizes the aftermath of an actual event, the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942. Eight fliers who bail out of damaged planes over China are captured by the Japanese and put on trial, against the rules of the Geneva Convention, on charges of murder (for supposedly deliberately bombing schools and hospitals). What the Japanese really want out of the men is information about how they got to Tokyo. They suspect that the Americans came from a carrier, in which case the Japanese Navy will be in trouble for letting it through "impenetrable" waters, but the Japanese also suspect that they could have come from bases in China or Russia. We know that they came from the carrier Hornet, but the men vow not to tell the truth and they keep their vow, despite instances of torture and promises of leniency. In the end, the prosecuting general (Richard Loo) commits hari-kari in the courtroom and the men are marched off to execution, though in reality, four of them managed to survive the war. This is not a traditional war film (no scenes of battle) nor is it really a courtroom drama (at least half of the film takes place in the men's cell, with occasional flashbacks and reveries). Its main purpose does indeed seem to be to serve as homefront propaganda, to remind us about the sacrifices our soliders were called upon to make. In that, it mostly succeeds, though the last shot of the men marching down the prison hallway in step to "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a bit much. The acting is all fine: Dana Andrews is the stolid but fully human captain, and among the other prisoners are Farley Granger, Richard Conte, Charles Russell, and Don Barry. Benson Fong, who did lots of TV in the 60's and 70's, has a small but juicy part as a Chinese man who is ashamed of his father's betrayal of the pilots. The strangest scene is when the fall of Corregidor is announced in the courtroom; the military men immediately jump to their feet and do an odd ritual dance with their swords. The most over-the-top scene, aside from the ending, is when one of the pilots stares out of the barred window into the clouds and hears his girlfriend recite "How Do I Love Thee?" [FMC]

Monday, September 26, 2005

TITANIC (1943)

Before Leonardo and Kate braved the disaster, even before Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck did the same, there was this German-made film which, while lacking a romantic couple at its center, and lacking even any fully-rounded characters, manages to be interesting from a propaganda viewpoint. In this version, made in the middle of WWII, the tragic tale of the sinking of the biggest ship in the world isn't a story of overarching pride but of English greed. In contrast to the more familiar versions of this story, this film has one main villain: Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star shipping line. His attempt to break speed records from England to New York comes not out of some amorphous desire to get in the history books, but out of a concrete attempt to raise the prices of stock shares in the company. Other American and British capitalists, such as John Jacob Astor, are fellow bad guys with no redeeming qualities. There are a couple of romances, or more precisely, a romance and a half, presented as subplots. The main one involves a member of the ship's band and a young woman who works as a maid on the ship. The half-romance involves a rich Russian countess (Sybille Schmitz) who is being coldly courted, for her money alone, by Ismay, but who discovers during the voyage that she's broke. She runs into Peterson (Hans Nielsen), the only German officer among the seamen (and therefore the only unambiguously good guy in the movie), a man with whom she had some kind of relationship in the past. He is the only crew member to register a complaint about the ship speeding through potentially dangerous drift ice (the point is made that the captain, who technically had the authority to do as he liked, had reservations but ultimately gave in to greedy Ismay's wishes), and his selfless example on board inspires Schmitz to behave in a noble fashion as the ship sinks. As in the James Cameron film, the class split between the rich (upper decks) and the poor (below, in steerage), is highlighted (both using folk dancing). The scenes of the ship sinking are serviceable for the era in which the film was produced, but some of the effects are awfully slopp--the line between the foreground, with the passengers in lifeboats, and the background, with the ship sinking, is visible and quite shaky. The finale is a brief scene in a courtroom where Ismay is on trial for negligence; despite Peterson's testimony, the responsibility for the disaster is placed on the (dead) captain, leading to a final crawl on screen which states that "the death of 1500 people remains unatoned, an eternal condemnation of England's quest for profit." Supposedly, some of the footage of the sinking was re-used in the 1958 A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Interesting, if largely uninvolving. [TCM]

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Fairly interesting romantic melodrama, with a predictable plot made palatable by good performances all around. Warren William plays a railroad magnate on the verge of completing an important merger, Mary Astor is his wife, and Dickie Moore is their young son. William, despite his business responsibilities, tries to spend as much time with his family as he can, but he finds Astor slipping away, not to another man, but to her socialite life. Feeling lonely and sorry for himself while out on a joy ride in his motorboat, he rescues a young swimmer (Ginger Rogers) who turns out to be a charming chorus girl. They have an apparently innocent afternoon together and later, when Astor is too busy to join William in an anniversary dinner, he renews his friendship with Rogers when he finds her singing and dancing in a Broadway revue. They drift into a casual affair that ends abruptly when Roger's producer and lover (J. Carroll Naish) tries to blackmail William with love letters he wrote to Rogers. During a confrontation, Naish tries to shoot William, but Rogers leaps in front of him and takes the bullet; William shoots Naish dead and leaves the scene, but circumstances catch up with him and he is tried for murder. The messy headlines derail his merger and threaten to end his marriage, but (Spoiler Alert!!) in a rushed and somewhat implausible finale, William is found innocent by reason of self-defense and the two go off to Europe for a healing second honeymoon.

William, Rogers, and Astor all make this worth sitting through. I like the fact that all three characters are presented in ambiguous shades of gray rather than black and white. For example, William's "fall" with Rogers comes off realistically; they're not in love with each other, but they take obvious joy in each other's company--in this year when the Production Code took effect, their relationship is portrayed as technically platonic, but it doesn't take much reading between the lines to assume a physical affair is taking place, and this reading makes more sense plotwise. Astor doesn't come off as a brittle, unfeeling bitch; in fact, she presents an interesting rationale for her behavior, telling William that social success is for women what business success is for men. There are many little gems in the narrative and the dialogue. Andy Devine, as William's chauffer, tells his boss that he hangs around the public library because it's a good place to meet "girls with ideas." Robert Greig, as the butler, notes that when his wife left him, he consoled himself "with a cup of tea and a chambermaid." Rogers gets a full-fledged musical number, the mildly naughty "Shake Your Powder Puff," and there's a delightful moment with Rogers and William singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" during an afternoon tete-a-tete. Sidney Toler plays a cop with a (justifiable) grudge against William, and John Qualen has a nice bit as a janitor in Rogers' building. Despite its plotting problems, this is well worth seeing if you're a fan of the era. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


A Noel Coward comedy transferred faithfully to the screen, perhaps a bit too faithfully, since it winds up feeling a little stagy and sluggish. Rex Harrison is an author writing a book on spiritualism and he invites a noted but rather ditzy medium (Margaret Rutherford) to a small dinner party to get some material, but during a seance, she actually manages to conjure up the ghost of Harrison's first wife (Kay Hammond) who stays around to haunt him. No one else can see the spirit, so Harrison's current wife (Constance Cummings) is first perplexed and then annoyed at his odd behavior. Hammond eventually attempts to kill Harrison by tampering with his car so he'll have a fatal accident and join her in the afterlife, but instead it's Cummings who ends up dead, so Harrison soon has two bitchy ghosts in the house. Rutherford winds up unable to intervene, and a happy ending looks elusive until another death occurs, providing at least an ending, a funny one if not a particularly happy one for anyone involved. The actors are all fine, especially Rutherford who originated the role of the medium on stage and uses all kinds of upstaging business to shine here. The colors are striking, especially the green used for the ghosts; the movie is not a special effects extravaganza by any means, though the few effects used are fine. At around 100 minutes, the film feels too long, especially in its final section, and perhaps David Lean was not the best director for such breezy material, but it's worth seeing if for no other reason than to see the delightful Rutherford (known today for her Miss Marple movies of the early 60's) ham it up. [VHS]

Saturday, September 17, 2005


One of Norma Shearer's last movies, and a sad one to come at the end of a solid career. The problem has nothing to do with Shearer, who is fine; the movie is sunk by weak material (an adaptation of two short plays by Noel Coward which do not meld together very well) and bad timing (the high society/screwball trappings were out of date by the beginning of WWII). Shearer plays a Polish countess (without a trace of an accent) living in America and apparently on the verge of becoming down-and-out, or at least as down-and-out as former royalty ever gets in Hollywood movies. Melvyn Douglas is a Viennese "professional guest" (also accent-free) who gets along by being a charming houseguest in the homes of rich people. The two meet cute at a party the night before Shearer's wedding to rich Lee Bowman. The opening of the film is, in fact, quite fun: without knowing anything in the way of context, we see Douglas grab Shearer, a total stranger to him, on a moonlit patio and dance with her. Rather improbably, she is (almost literally) swept off her feet and agrees to run off and marry him that night. The two get by for a time as "guests," but the fact that they are a couple makes them less interesting to the big-city rich and famous and they wind up scraping the bottom of the barrel, accepting invitations from Midwest hoity-toitys (horrors!). After she threatens to leave him, he finally decides they should head to New York to find honest work, but one last house party tempts him, and there he meets up with an old flame, Gail Patrick, with whom he is caught in the closet doing some canoodling. Up to this point, the movie has been light and fun, but from here on in, it's like watching paint dry. In a nutshell, they divorce, he schemes to get her back, and, by golly, he *does*. This would have been much more fun as a Lubitsch pre-Code film (it has touches that bring to mind TROUBLE IN PARADISE), but the director, Robert Z. Leonard, is no Lubitsch. Shearer is an asset, but Douglas isn't charming enough by half; in fact, though Bowman is a rather lightweight actor, I think things would have worked much better if they had switched parts. After the halfway point, my sympathies were with Bowman and never went back to Douglas, so the "happy" ending, with Shearer and Douglas once again dancing off in each other's arms, was not particularly happy for me. Familiar faces in the supporting cast helped me stick with it: Marjorie Main as a judge, Reginald Owen as Bowman's uncle, Alan Mowbray as another professional guest, Connie Gilchrist as one of the Midwestern hostesses, and Florence Bates and Norma Varden in small speaking roles. The "dancing" part of the movie came from one Coward playlet, and the guests plot from another; as separate short episodes, they might have worked, but stuck unnaturally together, they don't. [TCM]

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Weak propaganda film with a cliched storyline: rich playboy wrecks people's lives but redeems himself by becoming a war hero. Like other films of its era which were shot before the U.S. officially entered the war, the hero has to get into the fighting through a back door, in this case, via the Royal Canadian Air Force. The playboy, Richard Greene, is an plane enthusiast, and the film begins with a drunken Greene, flying a small plane with his hired pilot in the back seat, causing an accident which kills a passenger. The pilot, who has the clever nickname "Sky" (Donald Stewart), is legally considered at fault since the flight was his responsibility, and he loses his license. His reporter sister, Carla Lehmann, decides to get the goods on Greene and begins dating him under false pretenses, then actually falls in love with him, but is rejected when Greene learns her real identity. Next, in a rather unmotivated move, Greene joins up to ferry American B-17's (the Fortresses of the title) over to England for the war effort. Stewart happens to be his boss and when they wind up overseas, who should they run into but Lehmann, who is still in love with Greene. After experiencing an air raid and feeling helpless, the two men join the RCAF and the film climaxes with a bombing raid over Berlin in which Greene rather improbably saves the day by climbing out on the wing of the plane to extinguish a fire.

Actually, the film had potential, but editing has made hash out of the plotline and characters; Halliwell lists the film with a running time of 108 minutes in Great Britain, but here it was trimmed to 68 (to serve as a second feature, no doubt) so important plot details and character motivations have vanished. Greene, most famous as the TV Robin Hood of the late 50's, is handsome and does the B-movie hero thing fairly well; the other supporting players are just adequate, including Betty Stockfeld as a titled "Lady" slumming amongst the hoi polloi to do her thing for the war and providing some romance for sidekick Stewart. Basil Radford, a delightful supporting actor in films like THE LADY VANISHES and NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH, has little to do in a small role but still manages to outshine everyone else. The flag-waving finale, with the words of Churchill intoned over newsreel footage, ignores the outcomes of the characters. There is some impressive footage of bombing raids, but it's mixed with some truly wretched special effects. The British cut of this film might be worth seeing, but the current print is of interest only for die-hard buffs of the era. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


A fairly average pre-Code romantic drama; the main reason for watching this is Joel McCrea, the primary "kept husband" of the title. He's a working class guy and former college football star currently in the employ of steel magnate Robert McQuade. When McCrea heroically saves some fellow workers from a potentially fatal accident, the boss asks him to dinner where he attracts the attention of McQuade's daughter, Dorothy Mackaill, who bets her father that she can rope him into marriage in four weeks, and she does, though she takes the unorthdox step (for the era) of proposing to him. He then becomes a "kept" husband, as Mackaill intends to have them essentially live comfortably off of her family. She keeps him in Europe on their honeymoon for weeks, with a promise from her father that he will give McCrea a raise and also give her a secret allowance that will let her live in the manner to which she has become accustomed. McCrea becomes a vice-president with essentially no duties, leaving him free to learn how play bridge during his office hours (in a funny scene with his equally bored secretary). Soon, however, McCrea gets a chance to work on a real project and he goes at it gung-ho, much to the irritation of his wife who is tempted to stray into an affair with a dissipated pal. McCrea decides to leave her, and to resign as "kept vice-president," but McCrea's mom (Mary Carr), a salt-of-the-earth type, advises him that all husbands are kept one way or another, whether by money or love; she pushes him to try again and the two finally reconcile, this time with McCrea re-proposing to he--got to set things right symbolically by the rigid gender codes of the time. The incredibly young and comely McCrea seems completely natural, but next to him Mackaill is too mannered and brittle; she might have come off as an early feminist, but instead she's just a spoiled "rich bitch" whom we know will be "humanized" in the end, and our sympathies go to McCrea, no matter how we feel about the gender issues under consideration. Ned Sparks lends some nice comic relief as a former work buddy of McCrea's who lives in Carr's house, although here a little of him goes a long way. Freeman Wood has a very small role as a passive kept husband who is presented a couple of times in the background as a warning of what McCrea might heading for. McCrea fans will love this one, but others can take a pass. [TCM]

Saturday, September 10, 2005


One of the best of the early WWII films, perhaps partly because it's centered on an actual event, the first major ground offensive by American troops. The film is based on a book by a journalist who was with the first group of Marines who invaded Guadalcanal, a small island in the Solomon Island chain, and though I haven't read the book, the film does stay true to the journalistic form, with voice-over narration and an episodic nature. We begin observing the group of new troops on a ship somewhere in the South Pacific, waiting for action. It became a cliche for movie troops to be a varied bunch of stereotypes, and this is most likely one of the movies responsible for the development of that cliche, but the types are worn lightly and rarely feel overdone (despite the fact that the very first line of dialogue involves a Jewish man singing "Rock of Ages" at a Sunday morning service). Ostensibly, the main character of the film is the stolid Irish chaplain (Preston Foster), but William Bendix, as the pug from Brooklyn (nicknamed "Brooklyn"), gets the most screen time. Others we get to know include the relatively seasoned sergeant Lloyd Nolan, intellectual Richard Conte, Latino Anthony Quinn, and baby-faced teenager Richard Jaeckel--the narrating reporter (Reed Hadley) is only seen occasionally. The opening 20 minutes sets up a nice, casual intimacy among the men, who don't mind napping on each other's shoulders or jitterbugging with each other. Their landing on the island, which has a Japanese-built airstrip that the Americans would dearly love to occupy, is easy as there is virtually no resistance, but when a large group of men attempt to invade a beach at the mouth of the Matanikau River, they are slaughtered with only one soldier, Quinn, able to swim back to safety. He can only watch as the Japanese soldiers brutally bayonet the American corpses littering the beach. Jaeckel, despite being warned, tries to steal a sword from a dead Japanese only to wind up getting wounded by a nearby sniper; the payoff occurs later when the lad uses a similar trick on the enemy. The battle scenes are well done, though not nearly as graphic as they would be in later movies, and in general, the conditions have clearly been sanitized for the homefront viewers; for example, there is very little hint of the malaria that ravaged the men in real life. Still, we do get a strong sense of how the men change over the course of their ordeal, especially at the end when the weary Marines greet their Army replacements. Crusty old Lionel Stander, who I think was a crusty old man even in his youth, has a small role. Not the most realistic war picture, but definitely recommended. [DVD]

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


A CASABLANCA knockoff that's not bad, but would be a whole lot better if it wasn't always reminding us that it supposed to be a CASABLANCA knockoff. Paul Henreid is a Dutch resistance fighter known as the Flying Dutchman on his way out of Europe to England, spending an enforced 2-day layover in neutral Lisbon (not nearly as exotic as Vichy Casablanca) where he is supposed to meet up with a local underground figure. Hedy Lamarr, also in the resistance, witnesses a man she has just passed information to get shot in an alleyway, so she ducks into the Cafe Imperoli (way fancier and not nearly as fun as Rick's) and runs into Henreid. After this, the events happens fast and furiously, with lots of sound and fury but not signifying much. Sydney Greenstreet, the head of the local underground group, suspects that one of his associates is a double agent. Is it Peter Lorre, the only one with more than a couple lines of dialogue? And what's going on with Lamarr's "secret" husband (Victor Francen), a German diplomat?; he may be a Nazi but he also managed to get Lamarr out of Dachau and might be a closet member of the Resistance. Some elements that seem designed to conjure up CASABLANCA include a deadly dust-up in the streets over identity papers, a song sung in a club that affects the listeners (not patriotically but sentimentally), and a roulette game called in French. The pace of the movie never flags, but the lack of chemistry and relative listlessness of the leading duo, particularly when compared to Bogart and Bergman, cause much of the film to feel flat. The finale at a seaside casino is filled with action but is awfully convoluted. Most of the pleasures here are in the noir-inflected cinematography and the supporting players. Greenstreet effortlessly steals every scene he's in, and it's nice to see him as a good guy; Francen does a fine job keeping us in the dark about his ultimate sympathies, and Joseph Calleia does an OK turn as a Claude Rains-ish cop. Steven Geray and Kurt Katch, as the other underground members, don't have many lines, but add atmosphere as they skulk in the shadows. Supposedly Marcel Dalio, the croupier from CASABLANCA, is also the croupier here, but I didn't notice him. [TCM]

Saturday, September 03, 2005


A glossy college musical from RKO which, while not up to the standards of the studio's Astaire/Rogers films, and definitely no GOOD NEWS, is still watchable and fun. The movie never quite lives up to its opening minutes, a clever pre-credit shot of a bunch of football players singing a song about hating the spring because they're "Heroes in the Fall." The story proper begins at a little country inn called the Hunted Stag (there's a nice gag about a visitor looking for the Stunted Hag) where a bunch of Princeton football players working part-time during the off-season are recruited by a rich businessman as guardians for his wild daughter (Lucille Ball) who is going to Pottawattamie College in New Mexico. They enroll as students and are supposed to surreptitiously keep an eye on her so she doesn't misbehave (though even by 40's standards, she's hardly a loose cannon, joining up with a sorority whose members wear caps identifying them as girls who don't kiss boys). The father makes the football players sign an "Anti-Romantic Clause" but of course, the rest of the thin plot is all about romantic complications (and football games). Richard Carlson is quite charismatic as the boy who falls for Ball; Desi Arnaz pairs up with Ann Miller (playing a Latina) and they do some nice dancing; Eddie Bracken moons over Francis Langford. Tall vaudeville dancer Hal LeRoy is the fourth player and gets to do a nice tap number. The cast also includes Douglas Walton as an older Noel Coward-type writer who has a rather improbable flirtation with Ball, and Grady Sutton and Van Johnson (in his film debut) have small roles. The most memorable song from the Rodgers and Hart score is "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," sung first by Ball (dubbed by someone else) and Carlson, and later in a burlesque fashion by Bracken to Arnaz. The plot and setting are reminiscent of the Gershwin musical GIRL CRAZY, a play from the 20's which was made into a movie in the 30's (with Wheeler and Woolsey--reviewed here 11/4/04) and in the 40's (with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland); the music here can't hope to match that of the other show, but this is overall more fun. [TCM]