Wednesday, November 30, 2005

PURSUIT (1935)

Tight, fast-paced film which provides a nice showcase for one of my favorite B-leads, Chester Morris. He plays a pilot who is being paid to deliver 6-year-old Scotty Beckett (one of the Little Rascals), a child in the middle of a nasty custody battle, to Mexico to stay with his birth mother. Along with Beckett for the ride is Sally Eilers, who is working for middleman C. Henry Gordon, but they never make it up in the air after the prop plane takes off with the kid in it alone and Morris has to jump in and crash it into a barn to save the kid. The three take off in a car for Tijuana and have a series of mostly comical misadventures, some of which involve getting handcuffed to each other and being followed by snoopy Henry Travers, who is out for some reward money. They dress the boy up as a girl to throw Travers off the track, and a pregnant dog named Perfume provides other diversions. Once they get near the border to meet Gordon and the mother (Dorothy Peterson), Gordon tries to pull a double cross to get the reward money, which is substantially more than he'll get from Peterson, but there's a happy ending in store involving the trio dressing in blackface and driving across the border in an old jalopy in full view of Gordon. Normally, I prefer some decent characterization and backstory, but here the fact that we are given very little background about the characters works well with the short timeframe (the hour-long movie takes place over just 2 days time). Morris and Eilers work up some good B-level chemistry, the kid is fine, and Erville Alderson does a nice comic turn as a befuddled cop. [TCM]

Sunday, November 27, 2005


As Biblical epics go, this one is too serious to be campy fun like Cecil B. DeMille's renowned films, and it's not "epic" enough to be compared to THE ROBE, so it winds up occupying a not terribly interesting middle ground. The narrative begins with King David (Gregory Peck) and the Israelites at war with the Ammonites. After a successful battle, David returns home, leaving his trusted captain Uriah (Kieron Moore) at the front; despite having a number of wives, David lusts for Uriah's wife Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) after he sees her bathing from his balcony. Soon they are in the midst of a heated affair and Bathsheba gets pregnant, which is a problem since her husband has been gone for over a year. Since the penalty for adultery is stoning the woman to death (the man appears to get away scot-free), David devises a plan to get Uriah back for at least one night so that her condition will not be suspicious. However, despite a kind of consciousness-raising talk from David about keeping his wife happy, Uriah instead spends the night sitting up and waiting for his next battleground orders. David then issues secret plans to have Uriah isolated in the forefront of the fighting so he'll be killed, then David can marry his widow. The plan works, but when sandstorms and drought hit Israel (and Bathsheba's baby dies soon after its delivery), holy man Nathan (Raymond Massey) interprets the events as signs of God's displeasure with David's sins, and the people rise up to demand the death of Bathsheba. In the climax, David spends a dark night of the soul communing with God before the Ark of the Covenant, and we see flashbacks to some of his legendary deeds, including the defeat of Goliath. Finally, David leans forward to touch the sacred Ark--an act that we have seen can cause death--and instead of David being struck down, drenching rains bring an end to Israel's suffering, and David and Bathsheba live happily ever after, one assumes. Peck is handsome and, when he appears toward the end in a scruffy beard and sackcloth, he's actually kinda sexy. Hayward is appealing, Massey has an appropriate fire-and-brimstone attitude, and Jayne Meadows, whom I know mostly from her appearances on "What's My Line?" does a surprisingly good job as one of David's conniving wives. George Zucco and Francis X. Bushman have small roles. The production, though not exactly opulent, is satisfactory; the print I saw on Fox Movie Channel was murky and in need of restoration. [FMC]

Friday, November 25, 2005


Just a few days ago, I dissed Bruce Cabot as the leading man in SINNER TAKE ALL. Now I have to note how much I liked him as the lead in this B-crime movie with a unique propaganda twist: it's basically an anti-parole movie. The film opens at a parole hearing for convict Cabot. His sad-looking wife shows up with a baby in tow and helps convince the board to free him, but we find out that the woman is an actress and the baby is rented. Cabot is whisked off to his mistress (Grace Bradley) and continues his life of crime by robbing a dairy company and killing a guard in the process. Then he spends a few weeks visiting his small-town family who think he's an important traveling businessman (Cabot has his henchman Frank Jenks send them postcards from foreign countries to strengthen the illusion). While visiting, he pulls off a jewelry store robbery to get a bracelet for Bradley, and cop James Gleason, who has been after Cabot all along, figures out what's what. He finds Bradley and blackmails her (with incriminating phone calls to another lover) into helping catch him. Cabot winds up behind bars again for possessing a gun while on parole, but pulls off a clever escape, just long enough to gun down Bradley in cold blood, then gets back to jail where eventually he comes up for parole again. The twist this time is that his father, Lewis Stone, is now a member of the parole board. When his son comes before him (under an assumed name), he is shocked. Cabot gets Stone to agree to let him off in exchange for never contacting the family again, but the son returns to town for one last heist, on the eve of his sister's wedding. The finale is appropriately vicious and satisfying. Cabot is convincing both as a brutal thug and as a nice all-American boy. Stone and Gleason are fine as usual. Betty Grable is Cabot's sister, Louise Latimer is his almost homely small-town girlfriend, John Arledge is Grable's fiance, and Nella Walker is Stone's wife. This little B-gem has been ignored by Maltin and Halliwell, but it's worth catching the next time it crops up on Turner Classic. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


An almost completely fictionalized version of the last days of notorious outlaw William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. The real-life Kid was only 21 when he was killed, and Robert Taylor, who plays him here, was 30 at the time, and looked even older, but if you put out of your head any idea that this movie has anything in common with history, you can enjoy it. It's established early on that Taylor's father died from being shot in the back, and Taylor now has a something of a mania about that. We first see the Kid break his Mexican buddy Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail in a small frontier town. The two wind up in the middle of a local brouhaha. Town big shot Gene Lockhart runs not just the saloon and the general store, but also the puppet sherrif (Cy Kendall) and judges, and he is trying to stop British cattleman Ian Hunter from selling his cattle to the Army and undercutting his own prices. First, Lockhart hires Taylor on his side, but during a nighttime cattle stampede, Taylor runs into Brian Donlevy, a childhood friend, who is working for Hunter and soon Taylor is, too. This doesn't sit well with Lockhart and his men, who kill Pedro to prod Taylor into a rash act. Donlevy talks him into acting with caution, but when Hunter, who has just been named marshal, is shot to death (and in the back), Taylor can't be stopped, leading to a predictably sad ending. Most critics think Taylor was too old and too glossy for the part, but if you take this as just a movie about an outlaw anti-hero and forget that it's supposed to be based on fact, I think Taylor is fine, as is Donlevy, and neither of them is usually a favorite of mine. The supporting cast standout is Lockhart, as he so often is. Also present are Henry O'Neill (fine as a reporter who stands with Hunter and Taylor) and Mary Howard (colorless as Hunter's sister, and briefly, Taylor's love interest). Familiar faces in smaller roles include Chill Wills, Ethel Griffes, Lon Chaney Jr., Joe Yule, and Grant Withers. The film was nominated for an Oscar for color cinematography, and it does indeed often look ravishing, with some scenes shot on location in Utah's Monument Valley. Even though the studio scenes can't match that, as a whole the movie looks quite good. [TCM]

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Although the title promises a titillating pre-Code movie, this is really a tame drawing room comedy of manners which is quite fun until it takes a turn toward rather drippy melodrama in its last 15 minutes. A British family of lords and ladies is thrown into disarray when they read in the papers that young son Ralph Forbes plans on marrying musical comedy star Ruth Chatterton. It's already bad enough that a cousin, Basil Rathbone, has been carrying on with a married woman who feels she can't leave her invalid husband, but this latest development threatens to send Lord Willie (Herbert Bunston) and assorted relatives through the roof. The family meets Chatterton and, assuming she's a gold digger who has tricked Forbes into a proposal, decides to test her: they say they will OK the marriage if she retires from the stage and comes to live with them for a few months, hoping that Forbes will tire of her during that time. What they don't know is that Forbes is the one who forced the marriage issue by planting an item in the press; Chatterton herself isn't as gung-ho as the family thinks, and even her own father doesn't want her to leave the stage. Over a few weeks' time, she wins most of the family members over, even Lord Willie, but also finds herself falling for Rathbone. The two plan to run off together, but when Rathbone's mistress's husband dies, plans change for everyone.

This has all the strengths (nice set, good writing) and weaknesses (awkward scene transitions, flubbed lines left in) of the early sound MGM movies. The cast is especially good here, even the usually weak Forbes. Bunston (Dr. Seward in the 1931 DRACULA) does a nice job as a pompous fuddy-duddy who slowly warms to Chatterton's charms, even doing an ass-slapping dance to a jazzy gramophone record. Fredrick Kerr is quite funny as Lord Trench, the most snobbish but also the funniest of the family, especially when he gets drunk on "gully washers." His best line (among many candidates) is when someone suggests that, when Chatterton enters, "we all look horrified," to which he replies, "That won't be hard with my wife in the room." McKenzie Ward is the effete cousin Ernest whose breathing exercises are always bothering someone. Though not a musical, the movie does begin and end with Chatterton in a fancy production number. This film is more evidence that Chatterton has been unfairly forgotten by today's audiences. [TCM]

Saturday, November 19, 2005


An MGM B-mystery without much to recommend it aside from a rare screen appearance by real-life reporter (and "What's My Line" panelist) Dorothy Kilgallen, who has about 2-1/2 lines as a "girl reporter" who lends a hand to our hero at the climax. The plot involves a former reporter (Bruce Cabot) who now works as an assistant to lawyer George Zucco, who himself works for the Lampier family, who own the paper for which Cabot used to work. When the family starts getting death threats, the editor of the paper (Stanley Ridges) re-hires Cabot, leaving him working on the case from two perspectives. Two of the sons are killed, one by poison and one in a car crash (though at least one of them may still be alive but in hiding), and suspicion falls on the daughter (Margaret Lindsay) who seems to have the most to gain financially with the others out of the way. Another suspect is Joseph Calleia, shady owner of the Green Lantern night club, who may be having an affair with the editor's wife. If that's true, then the editor is also a suspect. And the final suspect is Zucco, who is almost always a suspect in any movie he's in. The outcome of the mystery plays out nicely, but the film's effectiveness is undercut by the wooden performance of Cabot. Lindsay, Zucco, and Calleia are fine, and it's interesting to see Charley Grapewin, kindly Uncle Henry in WIZARD OF OZ, playing a rich old man with a nasty disposition. The highlight of the movie is a scene near the end in which we see a shadowy figure hiding on top of an elevator in order to sneak into Grapewin's room and throw the old man off a balcony. Not a bad movie, but one that would have been much better with a more charismatic male lead. [TCM]

Sunday, November 13, 2005


This is often cited as one of the most beautiful looking films of all time, and it definitely is a feast for the eyes. As a drama, it has its moments, though the story of repressed passions is not far removed from typical Hollywood psychological melodrama. Deborah Kerr is a young nun who is made Mother Superior of a new nunnery in the Himalayas, in a small castle high up on a cliff overlooking a village. The property has been donated by an Indian general so that the sisters will run a school and hospital, and we find out early on that the place was once a palace for royal courtesans and that a previous group of priests that had been stationed there didn't last long. The British agent in the area (David Farrar) predicts that Kerr's nuns won't last, either. The building is filled with huge open windows and a chilly wind is constantly blowing through, day and night. Things start off well when the natives show up en masse, the adults at the hospital and the youngsters at school, but Kerr is disappointed to find out that they have been paid to do so by the general. Over time, the nuns become more or less undone by the various distractions of the sensual atmosphere. Flora Robson, in charge of the garden, winds up planting lovely flowers rather than the utilitarian vegetables that were planned. Both Kerr and the younger Kathleen Byron are attracted to Farrar (who frequently dresses in skimpy khaki shorts and a shirt open to his stomach) which leads to tensions between the two. A young native woman (Jean Simmons) who is in danger of getting a reputation as a harlot is brought to the sisters by Farrar, and she begins a romance with the Young General (Sabu), who is taking classes with the children. The natives turn hostile after one nun attends to a sick child who dies soon after. Eventually, Byron goes a little mad from her repressed desires, leading to a climax that, in use of sound, music, and visuals is very much like the climax to Hitchcock's VERTIGO.

As most critics note, the movie looks ravishing from first moment to last, and it's all the more astonishing when you realize that it was all shot on studio sets. It never looks studio-bound, and it achieves its atmospheric effects with more artistry than today's computer-generated tricks. The characters are a little underdeveloped; of the nuns, only Kerr gets any kind of backstory, and what’s there is slight--we learn through a handful of flashbacks that she came to her vocation after being jilted by a man whom she had loved for years. Farrar looks nice without a shirt, but the character suffers from a lack of background or a consistent personality. Byron wins acting honors for her descent into madness, but Kerr is good as well. I especially like her in the beginning, when her Mother Superior tells her she is getting charge of the new nunnery--we can't tell if she's happy or angry or excited or frightened; we get a strong sense of a woman trying very hard to repress her feelings. May Hallatt provides some weird comic relief as the native caretaker, but her acting style is overblown and her dialogue sounds dubbed in by someone else, which is a bit distracting. I've only seen this movie twice, and I suspect it's the kind of film that would richly reward repeated viewings. There are some bad video prints out there, so try to get the Criterion DVD or see it on Turner Classic Movies. [TCM]

Thursday, November 10, 2005


You could say that this movie was 50 years ahead of its time, as it plays out a little like "CSI: Boston," or as my partner put it when he saw me watching this on Turner Classic Movies, "CSI: TCM." It does a nice job of balancing the genres of police procedural and film noir. The opening segment is pure noir: a blonde bad girl comes to no good end. Trampy Jan Sterling is in a jam with her rent money (and, as we find out later, she's also pregnant) and after she calls her married lover to arrange a meeting to get some money, she promises nosy landlady Elsa Lanchester she'll get the money the next day. However, at the Grass Skirt bar, the lover doesn't show, so Sterling picks up drunken Marshall Thompson, a poor slob whose sick wife is in the hospital having just lost her baby. He takes her out to Hyannis where she ditches him, stealing his car to confront her lover (Edmon Ryan) who promptly shoots her dead and dumps her and the car into the water. Some time later, Sterling's skeleton washes up at Cape Cod and police detective Ricardo Montalban has to find out who she is and who killed her. He solicits the help of Harvard forensics professor Bruce Bennett who uncovers clues from the bones of the victim. A web of circumstantial evidence begins to tighten around Thompson, who is arrested on suspicion of murder, but landlady Lanchester puts 2 and 2 together first and tries to blackmail the real killer. All this leads to an exciting chase at a train station with justice prevailing in the end. Montalban is quite good in the lead, and Lanchester steals all her scenes playing against her usual dithering type as a greedy and fairly cold-blooded schemer. Sally Forrest, second billed as Thompson's wife, doesn't have much to do until toward the end. Willard Waterman has an amusing bit as a mortician and old pal of the deceased. The issues of race and class are brought up briefly when the rich blueblood Ryan casts aspersions on the "upstart" Hispanic Montalban; it's a short and subtle but effective scene. I have no idea how the title fits in. Recommended. [TCM]

Monday, November 07, 2005


A strange example of the "exotic" romantic melodrama, quite popular back in the day. When it was released, it was probably seen as a lesson in tolerance, but now its message comes off as somewhat offensive, though it does make for an interesting viewing experience. Richard Barthelmess, an actor without a drop of exotic "otherness" in him, plays Sam Lee, a young Chinese man who can pass for Caucasian. After getting dissed by some college girls when they find out that he is Chinese, he leaves school and goes back home to San Francisco and his father, successful businessman Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren), who counsels him that only tolerance can combat prejudice. Sam goes out on his own, works below deck on an ocean liner, is befriended by author Claude King, and winds up assisting him on a book. Living a relatively high life in France, he meets soap heiress Allana (Constance Bennett) who takes a shine to him, until she finds out he's Chinese, when she whips him across the face with a riding crop in public at the Casino Royale (a scene similar to one in Clara Bow's CALL HER SAVAGE, reviewed 5/24/04). Sam winds up back in San Francisco to take over the family business when his father dies. Allana wants him back but he'll have nothing to do with her, so she drowns her sorrows in a life of dissolution. Eventually Sam finds out that he was actually a Caucasian foundling who was adopted by a Chinese couple. That leads to a theoretically happy ending for the two, though the resolution--as long as he's white, he's alright--will leave a bad taste in modern viewers' mouths. There's a flashback scene which was filmed in Technicolor, but in the Turner Classic print, it looks like it's tinted pink. Frank Albertson plays the potentially interesting character of Ticker, Sam's college buddy, though he vanishes after the first 15 minutes. Mildred Van Dorn, as the father's secretary, gives Sam a Catholic scapula (saying it can't hurt to mix religions) and uses the worst come-and-go Irish accent ever. As far as I can tell, there is precisely one Asian actor with a speaking role (King Ho Chang as Sam's assistant) though the experience must have traumatized him as he never appeared in another movie. The direction is stagy and awkward though some of the sets are cool, especially a huge round door in Sam's house. Neither lead is at his or her best: Barthelmess is way too old to play a college-age boy and Bennett is rather lackluster except for her brief whipping scene. [TCM]

Saturday, November 05, 2005


In my youth (late 60's-early 70's), I was a rabid comic book fan, with hundreds of them stacked around the basement, in order by title and issue number (and they're still there--thanks, Mom!) and I remain fascinated by what is referred to as the Silver Age of comic books. Comic book movies get made regularly now, with huge budgets and big stars, but back in the 60's, they were few and far between, were usually low-budget affairs, and were, in line with the zeitgeist, quite campy and not to be taken seriously. BARBARELLA is probably the best known comics-related film of that era, but this one is much better. It certainly does the best job replicating the comic-book reading experience on screen of any film until the recent X-Men and Spider Man movies. Based on an Italian series, the main character is a super villain known only as Diabolik (John Phillip Law). The episodic narrative, which feels like a string of separate stories from a run of comic book issues, follows Law as he steals from the rich and gives to himself and his sexy partner (Marisa Mell). The opening segment has an armored car company attempting to thwart a possible hijackikng by substituting waste paper for 10 million dollars and sending the real money in a diplomat's Rolls-Royce, but Law manages to waylay the car (using psychedelic fog pumped out of his own Batmobile-type car), snatch it up in the air via magnet, and get the money. We then follow him through a long drive to his underground lair, like the Batcave but much cooler, where he and Mell have sex on a huge circular bed, on top of and covered by the money. This scene is probably the peak of the film in terms of camp appeal. Among the other "episodes": Law dons a skintight cat-burglar suit to scale a tower and steal a priceless necklace; Law and Mell attend a press conference by the Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas in a brief comic-relief role) and let loose Exhilaration Gas (after taking Anti-Exhiliration Gas Pills) which leaves the whole crowd in helpless giggles; Law rescues Mell from gangster Adolfo Celi, then drops him mid-air from a parachute to his death; Law blows up lots of government buildings (in a scene reminiscent of the conclusion of Fight Club, and, of course, of the events of 9/11); Law steals all of the government's gold, melted down into a 20-ton ingot. In the end, Law's arch-enemy, police inspector Michel Piccoli, seems to get the upper hand when a spray of molten gold covers Law, and Piccoli leaves him for dead, but a last literal wink at the audience lets us know that a sequel could be forthcoming (though it never happened). The movie is lots of fun, and the comic-book style (lots of fast cuts and close-ups) adds to that, but the amoral nature of the anti-hero made me a little uncomfortable--Law is out for himself alone, and doesn't mind killing anyone in his way. Aside from that little moral quibble, this is great fun if you're in a 60's fantasy mood. [DVD]

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I've never read the "Anne" books and I don't think I've ever seen a version of "Heidi" all the way through (though I have seen a couple of Shirley Temple films) so I'm not really an expert on the Orphan Melodrama, but this seems like a perfectly charming example of the genre. The actress Anne Shirley plays the orphan Anne Shirley (the actress's name was Dawn O'Dea but she changed it when this movie came out) who is adopted by Marilla (Helen Westley) and her brother Matthew (O.P. Heggie); they wanted a boy to help out around the farm, and when a whimsical little drama queen (she proclaims that her red hair is her "lifelong sorrow") shows up, they're not sure they want to keep her, but she soon wins them over. The rest of the episodic story follows her adventures living on Prince Edward Island. She has an amusing row with a gossipy neighbor (well played by Sara Haden), gets caught in a lie about being friends with a recent graduate, and, over the period of a few years, has a romance with fellow student Gilbert Blythe (Tom Brown). Their rocky relationship begins when she smashes a slate over his head because he makes fun of her hair. When she decides she wants to get his attention at a hayride, he ignores her, but later he comes to her rescue during a rafting mishap (she's floating along pretending to be the Lady of Shallot). They start seeing each other in secret because Marilla won't allow Anne to see Gilbert (many years ago, Matthew was jilted by Gilbert's mother and Marilla assumes that incident is his lifelong sorrow). Eventually, Anne is sent off to college, and just as she's about to graduate, she learns that Matthew is sick. She comes back home and arranges for Gilbert, now an assistant to a renowned heart doctor, to care for Matthew, leading to a happy ending all around. It's a sweet movie without being cloying or sentimental, and part of the credit for that goes to Westley and Heggie who both nicely underplay their roles. Shirley is fun, Brown is hunky in a mid-1930's way, and Haden does her usual spinster turn to a tee. [TCM]