Thursday, March 31, 2005

THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL (1939)

It was startling enough to discover that John Garfield's first starring role was in a movie with the Dead End Kids, but I was even more surprised to find that it's quite an enjoyable little movie. Garfield is a boxer who has the public persona of a pure and innocent mama's boy but in reality is something of a low-life who drinks and hangs out with thugs and sluts. After celebrating a win in the ring, Garfield gets in a drunken fight, passes out, and wakes up the next morning believing he is responsible for a killing. He is presumed dead in a car wreck and hightails it out of the big city, changing his name and winding up as a drifter out West on a "reform school" farm run by Gloria Dickson and her aging mother, May Robson. Dickson's kid brother (Billy Halop) and his fellow ruffians (the Dead End Kids) idolize Garfield as he becomes a stabilizing older-brother figure to them. Garfield enters an amateur boxing event to win money so Dickson can buy a gas station to supplement the income from her struggling farm, but a picture of him is published in the newspapers and a cop from back East (Claude Rains) who all along never believed that Garfield was really dead comes nosing around, ready to nab him on murder charges if he steps into the ring. Will Garfield skip out on the kids and a chance to be a good guy, or will he do the noble self-sacrificing thing and risk arrest? From the above plot outline, you can easily see the potential for cliche situations, but the characters are given interesting shades by the writers and actors and the film keeps moving along nicely. As the leading lady, Dickson is a bit of a letdown, but Garfield is sexy, as is Ann Sheridan who has a criminally small role as Garfield's tart in the opening scenes. Halop and the other kids (including Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall) are all quite convincing and Robson is her usual fun "spunky old lady" self. Bizarrely, the weak link in the proceedings is the usually top-notch Claude Rains--he is terribly miscast in his relatively small role as a rumpled cop and seems to have just given up on trying to give any color at all to his character. Also with Ward Bond and Warners' supporting stalwarts John Ridegly and Louis Jean Heydt. Highlight scenes include a strip poker game aimed at getting money out of a rich kid and a long sequence in which Garfield and the kids, who have gone swimming in a giant irrigating water tank, are stranded when the water level falls. [TCM]

Monday, March 28, 2005

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1965)

As a lapsed Catholic boy, I am still driven now and then to religious movies, especially at Easter. I enjoy the high camp of DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (I know it's a Passover film, but can I help it if the networks confused me as a child by always running it at Easter?) and the more serious, austere, and ambiguous films of directors like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, and I even have a soft spot for those impossibly reverent, usually lifeless spectacles like KING OF KINGS. This film by gay Catholic Marxist director Pier Paolo Pasolini is unique in the canon of Jesus movies. It is reverent to the extent that the narrative is straight out of the Gospel of Matthew, but it is filmed in the Italian "Neorealist" style, almost as though a documentary or reality show crew is following Jesus around. The actors are almost all amateurs and the sets are (I assume) found locations in the hills of Italy, which double fairly well for the Holy Land. The upshot is that this movie brings Jesus to life more than any other film I've seen. There is surely no need here for a detailed plot summary; the film covers most of the highlights of the Christ story including His birth, the visit by the Wise Men, Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents, Christ's temptation by Satan, His encounter with John the Baptist (and John's later encounter with Salome), and on to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Pasolini's non-pro actors don't have much dialogue, but they have faces ranging from lovely (Christ, played by Enrique Irazoqui, and the young Virgin Mary, played by Margherita Caruso) to frat-boyish (the soldiers who carry out Herod's slaughter) to grotesque (lepers and various onlookers), and much of the story is told through close-ups of the characters. The best example of this is the opening: Joseph, discovering that Mary is pregnant (and apparently not by him) walks away from her in anger and confusion, but is met by an angel (a rather scruffy young woman in plain white robes) who tells him what to do. Neither Mary nor Joseph has any dialogue, but their faces (and body language) express their feelings. There are a couple of nicely done montages of Christ preaching, and the intense Irazoqui varies between loving concern and angry passion. His Christ is the most interesting portrayal I've seen yet. The social messages of Jesus are made clear, but so are His fiercer concerns about the soul. The eclectic musical score ranges from Bach to the blues (folk singer Odetta singing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"). A superbly made film, accessible to the religious and the agnostic alike. The Water Bearer DVD is OK--it is letterboxed, but the print is not in great shape and the subtitles are occasionally hard to see. This cries out for a restored Criterion edition. [DVD]

Saturday, March 26, 2005

BEN-HUR (1925)

Not the award-winning Charlton Heston movie, but the silent film on which the 1959 remake was based. It's been a long time since I've seen the later film so I can't really do much direct comparison except to say that both cost a lot of money to make and both were big box-office hits. It's subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," and is indeed bookended by the Nativity and the Crucifixion, but it's really the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, the latest in a long line of Jewish princes. With Roman tyranny worsening, the Hur family riches are spirited away by the loyal slave Simonides. Judah (Ramon Novarro) meets up with boyhood pal Messala (Francis X. Bushman); at first, their reunion is friendly, but it becomes clear that Messala has become a ruthless Roman through and through, and when a stone falls from the Hur balcony and injures the new Roman governor, Messala has Judah, his mother, and his sister arrested. The women languish forgotten in prison, becoming lepers, and Judah becomes a galley slave on a Roman ship. His bravery during a pirate raid leads his "boss" to adopt him and he becomes renowned as a great athlete, but is still a tortured soul as he searches for not only his family but also his missing fortune. Along the way, he rides in a chariot race against Messala, finds his family, falls in love with Esther (May McAvoy), daughter of Simonides, and becomes a follower of Jesus Christ. The first half of the movie is fast-moving and mostly great fun; the last half is slower going, and the ending, after the Crucifixion, is rather anti-climactic. Most of the acting is a little less stagy than the usual silent acting type, though Novarro and the women who play his family members do have their overboard moments. It helps that Novarro is handsome and that the sets are spectacular. The big setpieces--the sea battle and the chariot race--are impressive, as are the Technicolor scenes inserted periodically, and the opening Nativity scene is also nicely done, looking like a procession of animated religious postcards. It's a little odd that we never actually see Christ, just his hand or his feet or his glow. Good Easter season viewing, and a great opportunity to see a famous silent star at the peak of his powers and popularity. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

CLIVE OF INDIA (1935)

Almost everything wrong with this undernourished historical epic can be summoned up by imagining LAWRENCE OF ARABIA remade as a 90-minute TV movie with Tom Selleck in the title role. Selleck is fine when he sticks to his strengths (light adventure and romantic comedy), but he would be quite at sea as Lawrence; similarly, Ronald Colman, excellent as a man of quiet authority in movies like LOST HORIZON and THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, has no business playing the real-life Baron Robert Clive, an impetuous, eccentric empire builder. At the start, we see him as a common clerk with the East India Company in 1748, and, over the following decades, he rises in the company by joining its militia and helping to bring about major victories against the French (and, I assume, the natives) in colonizing India for the British Empire. After one particularly important victory, he installs a "puppet" ruler (Cesar Romero, playing the kind of ruler that George Bush would undoubtedly like to have in Iraq); in gratitude, Romero gives Colman a small fortune and this leads to a scandal back home in which Parliament votes to censure him, casting a shadow over his twilight years. Colman never comes across realistically as the kind of feisty oddball that Clive is written to be. Loretta Young does fine as his long-suffering wife, who seems a bit happy with his disgrace, since it means he'll be retiring and not journeying off to India whenever he feels adventurous. Mischa Auer, Colin Clive and Leo G. Carroll play supporting roles. Aside from Colman's miscasting, the other big problem is the production, or lack thereof. Though there are a couple of interesting set pieces, including a brief look at the infamous "Black Hole of Calcutta" incident, most of the action is kept offscreen. There are long scenes of dialogue in which characters explain things to us and each other, then, over a montage of indistinct action scenes, we get title cards which tell us about the exciting events we don't actually get to see. The climactic battle of Plessey comes off looking like a tableau of Washington crossing the Delaware. Potentially exciting material that never comes fully to life. [FMC]

Sunday, March 20, 2005

MARRIED BACHELOR (1941)

Silly romantic comedy made bearable mostly by its amiable cast. Robert Young is a charming young man who has gotten by for years on small-potatoes schemes and scams; his wife Ruth Hussey is ready for some stability. Young promises Hussey he'll go respectable, but he winds up in a partnership with a small-time bookie (Sam Levene). When Young takes a long-shot bet on a horse race from thuggish Sheldon Leonard, the horse wins and they owe Leonard $17,000, which is about $16,000 more than they have. In an attempt to get some money owed to them, Young and Levene go to penniless professor Felix Bressart, who gives them a manuscript on modern marriage; if they get it published, they might be able to pay Leonard. Young finagles his way into the office of publisher Lee Bowman, presenting the book as a bachelor's jaded view of married life; Bowman takes the book and when it's promoted into a bestseller, Young has to appear in public as a bachelor, which understandably irritates his wife, who gets back at him by posing as an unmarried woman and flirting with Bowman. Of course, a happy ending is never in doubt. The screenplay, by future MGM studio head Dore Schary, has a screwballish feel and some good ideas, but the movie is never able to transcend its B-movie feel. The actors are all fine, with Leonard especially funny (though not at all threatening) as a slang-talking hoodlum who has to have all his conversations translated for Bressart by Young. Connie Gilchrist has an amusing moment at the very end. [TCM]


THE KID FROM TEXAS (1939)

Dennis O'Keefe plays a Texas cowboy who has somehow developed a taste for polo out on the range. Members of a rich Eastern family come out to O'Keefe's ranch to buy polo horses; when they decide to take Lone Star, O'Keefe's favorite horse, he heads back with them to help train the horse. Of course, he's also fallen in love with the daughter (Florence Rice) and we know it's just a matter of time before she figures out that she's in love with him, despite his crude galumphing ways. Rice's brother (Anthony Allan) and fiance (Robert Wilcox) allow O'Keefe to join them on their ritzy polo field, but his hot-dogging ways cause him to be thrown off the team, so he joins up with a Wild West show and develops a hit novelty act with a "cowboys vs. Indians" polo team. O'Keefe and Rice try to forget each other, but things are righted by the end. This lightweight second feature has some bright moments and a decent supporting cast including Buddy Ebsen as O'Keefe's sidekick, Jessie Ralph as Rice's wise old Aunt Minnie, and Jack Carson as a reporter who becomes O'Keefe's PR man. O'Keefe makes a handsome and charming lead, though Rice is a bit colorless. As comedies about cowboys and polo go, this is near the top of the heap. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

SCARFACE (1932)

This is a historically important pre-Code movie: in its day, it was considered extremely violent and for that reason, and because it supposedly glorified the gangster lifestyle, it was a frequently censored film. It also helped to establish the gangster movie genre as we know it today--even THE GODFATHER, which is often thought of as the, well, "godfather" of the modern gangster movie, owes much to SCARFACE. Nevertheless, the movie is rather slow going for much of its running time. Paul Muni plays Tony, a two-bit hood who acts on his aspirations to be rich and powerful; he gets in good with crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), killing off betrayers and rivals, but he eventually goes too far for Lovo's comfort so Tony kills Lovo and anyone else who stands in his way. Contrasted with his rise in power is his messy private life; he is interested in Poppy (Karen Morley), Lovo's girl, but she plays hard to get. Clearly, his real feelings lie with his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak); he's overly protective of her (perhaps with some reason, since she seems headed into a rather "loose" lifestyle), but his protection seems to spring mostly from his own unacknowledged physical lust for her. Tony's trusted right-hand man Rinaldo (George Raft) falls for Cesca and while Tony is gone in hiding for a while, Rinaldo marries Cesca. When Tony returns, he finds the two living together and, not realizing they are husband and wife, kills Rinaldo. The climax has a horde of cops closing in on Tony; Cesca wants to kill him, but can't bring herself to do so, so she winds up helping him to fend off the cops. They both end up dead.

Relationships between characters are not always clear, and some of the acting is weak. Muni and Dvorak are very good, as is Raft (he seems fresh here, but he got stuck in an acting rut for most of the rest of his career). Morley is a weak link--she seems totally disengaged from her character, though I can't help but think that this is partly a fault of the direction (by Howard Hawks). Osgood Perkins (the father of Anthony Perkins) is not a commanding enough presence to be a believable crime boss--he seems like he should be a whiny underling. Some of the cinematography is quite good, especially the long tracking shots that start the movie, when we see Muni make his first hit after an all-night party. Critics have noticed the preponderance of "X" shapes, mostly in shadows and usually related to the foreshadowing of death scenes. This is the second time I've seen the movie and I think it's more worth seeing as a historical example than has a fully-engrossing movie. The 1983 remake with Al Pacino isn't a particularly good movie, but it does highlight the undercurrent of incest which is only hinted at in the original, and it also has a hell of an ending, closely modeled after the 1932 ending but again much more explicit. [TCM]

Sunday, March 13, 2005

GOVERNMENT GIRL (1943)

It's true that I'm not the world's biggest Olivia de Havilland fan but I have grown to like her over the years; however, it seems she did her weakest work in 1943, with PRINCESS O'ROURKE (horribly bad) and this movie (not horrible but not all that good). The narrative is set in the same context as George Stevens's classic THE MORE THE MERRIER (which came out several months before this movie), with events playing out against the background of a crowded wartime Washington filled with love-starved females. Sonny Tufts is an auto executive who patriotically comes to D.C. to do his wartime duty by setting up plane manufacturing plants.
Olivia de Havilland is a pool secretary who meets Tufts in a hotel lobby and takes an instant dislike to him; of course, she winds up assigned to work for him. She has two other admirers, but one (Paul Stewart) isn't true-love material--if this had been made in the 80's, his character would be gay--and the other (Jess Barker) is an opportunistic fink, so eventually she and Tufts fall in love. The climax is a weakly-done Capraesque courtroom scene in which she comes to the rescue of Tufts, who is about to be drummed out of government service for shaking up the bureaucracy too much. The tone of the movie is that of screwball comedy, with lots of frantic motion and some slapstick moments, but the writing generally isn't as witty as it needs to be. I liked Tufts in SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, but he's not very successful here as he seems to be going for a Gary Cooper vibe and not hitting the mark. De Havilland tries, working full steam at her physical comedy scenes, but she can't carry the movie alone. A couple of supporting players are good (in addition to Stewart, who played Kane's butler in CITIZEN KANE, Agnes Moorehead and Una O'Connor are fine in small roles) but all the franticness gets tiring after a while. It was interesting seeing James Dunn, whom I know mostly from his very serious Oscar-winning role in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, doing some light comedy as a newly-married soldier who is cheated out of his honeymoon by the housing shortage in the nation's capital. Not a total waste of time, but not top-drawer comedy. [TCM]

Thursday, March 10, 2005

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)

Based on the criticism I've read of this movie, I need to present two disclaimers. First, the 2000 sword-and-sandals epic GLADIATOR apparently covers the same ground and has some of the same characters as this movie, though I haven't seen the later movie so I can't compare them. Second, this movie has been accused of playing quite fast and loose with historical fact; here again, I cannot be a judge since most of what I know about ancient history comes from the movies in the first place. What I can tell you is that this film has some wonderfully shot scenes, gorgeous landscapes, and spectacular sets and costumes, but falls down woefully in the acting department. GLADIATOR may have stolen from this film, but this film's set-up is right out of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Alec Guinness plays Marcus Aurelius, the dying Roman emperor who must name a successor (just as Sethi had to in the DeMille film); his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer) should be heir, but, like Yul Brynner in TEN COMMANDMENTS, he is not considered worthy; Stephen Boyd plays Livius, the Moses figure who wants to free many of the Roman slaves (particularly the noble but primitive Barbarians) and is in love with the emperor's daughter (Sophia Loren). After Guinness's death, a power struggle ensues between close friends Plummer and Boyd, leading to war and decadence and disloyalty, and supposedly the fall of the Empire, though the somewhat mistitled movie ends before that occurs. The spectacular look of the movie is all the more impressive when you consider that the crowds of extras, the elaborate sets, and the lovely natural scenery (especially an early scene set at dawn and later scenes in the snow) are all real, not the work of digital effects technicians. Guinness and Plummer are very good, and a handful of supporting players manage to make their marks (James Mason, Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif), but Boyd and Loren are quite weak and have zero chemistry--I was desperate for some Anne Baxter-like writhing ("Oh, Livius, Livius, Livius, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!!") to liven up the proceedings, but to no avail. I haven't seen much of either actor, and this movie makes me think that I'm not missing much. At over three hours, it's much too long, but it you decide to watch it for its impressive production and cinematography, be sure to see it letterboxed. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

SING AND LIKE IT (1934)

As TCM host Robert Osborne has pointed out, this little-known second-feature comedy may have been an influence on Woody Allen's BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Nat Pendleton, usually a supporting actor, gets a chance to star as a rich but dumb gangster who heads up a kidnapping and safecracking ring. While robbing a bank office, he overhears a little theater troupe rehearsing a musical revue and is overcome by awe and sentiment when he hears Zasu Pitts singing a sappy ode to mothers. Thinking that Pitts is a great singing talent (we know she's not), Pendleton strongarms Broadway producer Edward Everett Horton into hiring her to star in his latest show. The gangster and his gang ride roughshod over the production, eventually rewriting (badly) much of it, but on opening night, thanks to some handgun persuasion, the town's chief critic seems to love the show, and since all the rest of the critics (and much of the audience) take their cues from him, the show is a hit. The movie is quite fun in its first half-hour as we get to know the characters; the last half is a little too plot-heavy and shoddily constructed. A couple of the supporting players outshine the stars: Pert Kelton, who, 30 years later, played Ron Howard's mother in THE MUSIC MAN, is quite funny as Pendleton's moll, who has been angling for some time to be a musical star herself. John Qualen has a few nice moments as Pitts' milquetoast boyfriend. But best of all is deadpan Ned Sparks as Pendleton's sidekick who has to translate any multi-syllable vocabulary down to its earthiest essence for the gangster. It's a pre-Code movie so there are a few nicely risque zingers, but some of my favorite lines, thanks to their delivery, are throwaways, like when Pendleton first hears Pitts singing and claims he hears an angel; Sparks' dry reply: "Somebody must be plucking the feathers out of her wings." I also like hearing Pendleton call the tough and sleazy Kelton "Snugglepups." A scene where Pendleton gives Kelton two black eyes is potentially offensive, but earlier in the movie, we see that she is generally capable of holding her own with the big lug. Not a classic, but consistently amusing. Biggest flaw: we have to sit through Pitts' complete rendition of the "Mother" song three times. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

BLACK SHEEP (1935)

Average shipboard melodrama with a fairly light touch. On the S.S. Olympus, we follow four characters whose lives get entangled. Edmund Lowe is a professional card sharp who fleeces passengers; Claire Trevor is apparently a "fallen" woman, constantly trying to light a cigarette with an empty lighter as a way to cozy up to men; Adrienne Ames is a rich woman who steals for kicks--she has stolen some jewels and needs to find a way to smuggle them past customs; Tom Brown is a naive young man who has lost a lot of money gambling--Ames loans him the cash to pay off his debts, but then blackmails him into carrying the jewels for her. Lowe and Trevor circle each other warily at first, sneaking onto the first class deck and flirting a bit, and soon find common ground when they see Brown getting taken at cards by practical joker Eugene Pallette. When Brown sets out to kill himself by jumping off the ship, Trevor and Lowe befriend him and Lowe soon finds out that Brown is actually his son, from a failed marriage, whom he has never seen. The rest of the movie consists of watching Lowe and Trevor stick it to both Ames and Pallette. Trevor's quite attractive and does a nice job with a role that is a little different from the cynical rough-edged dames she would become famous for. Lowe is a bit too old and tired for the part of the dashing anti-hero--William Powell could have done better in his sleep. Brown is fine, and Ames is quite good as the scheming bitch with no redeeming qualities. Overall, nothing special, but there is some fun watching it all work out in the last 10 minutes. [FMC]