Monday, January 30, 2006


This silent film has been part of the Turner Classic library but because it didn't have a music track, it had never been aired. Now thanks to TCM's Young Composers contest, the film has a great musical score by Marcus Sjowall and it's also had some footage restored (though it could still stand some digital clean-up) and it's a delightful discovery. The film begins with a young newlywed (Eleanor Boardman) who runs away from her new husband (Lew Cody) on their wedding night--the only explanation given is that she suddenly feels "revolted" by him, though we quickly learn that he's a slimy con man who marries women for their money than kills them. She spends the night in the desert and wakes up the next morning to a romantic figure of a man on a camel, on a windswept sand dune. She asks, "Are you real or a mirage?" and he replies, "Neither--I'm a movie actor." From here on, the movie becomes mostly a Hollywood behind-the-scenes comedy. The director of the film being shot (Richard Dix) takes pity on Boardman and gives her a job as an extra, which leads to a screen test, a romance with Dix, and starlet status for Boardman. The tone of much of the film (self-referential and satirical) is fairly modern, and much fun is had with Hollywood cliches such as the casting couch and other lifestyle scandals. Boardman's father is a preacher who thinks of Hollywood as an evil place, though we're told that actors frequently party "until the heathenish hour of 11:30" and movie sets are made to seem very tough indeed--one actress has a huge light fall on her, breaking her legs and giving Boardman the chance she needs to move into a starring role.

Another cliche is attacked in a title card during the shooting of Boardman's first film which notes that "the usual sheik crosses the usual desert with the usual captive." There are some fun cameos by real celebs, including Erich von Stroheim (directing a scene from GREED), Charlie Chaplin, and Zasu Pitts. By the end, however, the melodramatic trappings of the beginning return: just as Dix proposes marriage to Boardman, her husband returns to the scene, threatening to expose her to scandal and ruin her career. The climax, set during the shooting of a storm scene which is hampered by a real storm rolling in and setting a circus set on fire, is a doozy. For the most part, the acting is toned down from the usual overwrought silent style of the time, except for Cody as the lady-killer husband. William Haines, in his first billed role, has a couple of scenes as an assistant director. Boardman's character's name is Remember Steddon. Quite fun and exciting, and I think appealing viewing even for folks who aren't really fans of silent films. [TCM]

Friday, January 27, 2006


Nifty little B-western with the well-used plot device of a small group of people under siege, in this case, a bunch of travelers stuck in a small way station surrounded by unfriendly Indians. Our hero (third-billed William Lundigan) is the kid brother of a well-known hellraiser and bandit (Lloyd Nolan). After a stagecoach robbery, Nolan got away but Lundigan, who seems to have been mostly an onlooker, was arrested. The amusing opening scene has a traveling judge passing a 60-day sentence on Lundigan without even getting out of his coach. Since Lunidgan has already served 90 days, the judge amends his sentence to 90 and Lundigan is freed. He goes back to his employer at the stagecoach and is given the job of running a way station in the middle of rough and tumble Apache country. With help from a Mexican woman (Connie Gilchrist), her young and lovely daughter (Donna Reed), and a friendly bunch of deputies, Lundigan settles into his job but is soon challenged when a group of travelers are stranded at the small walled-in fort during an Apache uprising. Nolan also shows up, coveting the Wells Fargo payroll box, and it turns out that the Indians are (literally) on the warpath because, in the midst of being made an honorary Apache, Nolan stole a valuable medicine pipe. After an initial raid, the Apaches ask for Nolan to be given up to them or they'll continue their siege of the fort. Lundigan refuses to give up his own flesh and blood, but in the end, Nolan sacrifices himself to save the rest. Nolan and Reed are top-billed, and Nolan is quite good as the shifty villain, but Reed has very little to do except use her best Natalie Wood-style Mexican accent while flirting with the hero. Lundigan does nicely as the handsome, wholesome, and sturdy hero. In notable support are Chill Wills as a wounded visitor who joins the group at the fort, Fuzzy Knight doing a stuttering comic-relief role (and getting a serious moment when his close buddy is killed), Miles Mander as a sickly frontier artist, Gloria Holden (who played Dracula's daughter in the 1936 film) as his wife, Tito Renaldo as a "good-guy" Indian, and Anne Ayars (who at times look just like Ruth Hussey) as a Civil War widow who flirts briefly with Lundigan. There's perhaps a little too much plot here for the hour-long film, but it's an enjoyable hour, and being an MGM B-film, it looks as good as any A-western of the time. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I've read an Ellery Queen story or two and I remember fairly well the Jim Hutton series of the 70's, but I had never seen an Ellery Queen movie until now. There was a short-lived series from Columbia with Ralph Bellamy, but the one I saw was an earlier film from B-studio Republic, with supporting player Donald Cook as the young detective who usually matches wits with his father--though in this film, it's Judge Macklin (Berton Churchill) who fills the older-man foil position. The film opens with Cook taking a couple of minutes of solve a crime for his dad before he and the judge leave for a vacation on the California coast at Spanish Cape (a resort area, I assume). They're staying in a guest house on the grounds and get roped into helping out at the nearby Godfrey mansion during a house party involving a bunch of unlikable gold-digging relatives who are out to crack a will they think is unfair to them. Friendly Uncle Dave (Huntley Gordon) is kidnapped while out for a moonlight stroll with his niece (Helen Twelvetrees). It seems that the thugs who snatched him thought he was actually George Baxter, a man who's been flirting with Twelvetrees (with her encouragement), even though she's engaged to Arnold Gray. After Cook and the judge arrive at the scene, Baxter is found dead, along with a letter indicating that he was cheating the family. Next to go is the greedy Mr. Munn who had been fighting with his wife. When someone suspects Mrs. Munn, the local sheriff (Harry Stubbs) says, "If every woman who fought with her husband killed him, America would be populated solely by Amazons." When Gray is found dead, suspicion falls on Twelevetrees. It takes one more death for Queen to dope out the identity of the killer; in retrospect, it's a predictable solution but I didn't figure it out. Twelvetrees is very good, though it took me a while to warm to her; Cook doesn't have much charisma but he's acceptable, and he handles the humorous banter with Twelvetrees fairly well. For a Republic film, the production values are not bad and the print I saw (from Encore Mystery) was in remarkably good shape. [TV]

Thursday, January 19, 2006


A rather ho-hum semi-musical bit of whimsy which seems designed as a launching pad for radio singer Kenny Baker's movie career; it didn't quite work, given that he only made a few more films over the next ten years, then retired from the screen. He comes off like a hayseed Dick Powell without the touch of sophistication that Powell brought to his parts. Baker plays Claude Dodd, an electrician from the small town of Pewamo who is discovered singing at the local strawberry festival by a big-city mattress manufacturer (Ferris Taylor, whose company is called Morpheus Mattress). Taylor likes the boy's rich baritone voice, and the fact that his wife fell asleep while Baker was singing makes Taylor think that Baker would be a natural to sing soothing tunes on his company-sponsored late night radio show. But by the time Baker gets on the air, he has had an operation due to an attack of "quinsy" (yes, it's says it's an inflamed abscess of the tonsils) and his baritone has risen to tenor. Taylor isn't happy, but the listening audience loves him and the radio station owner (Henry O'Neill) signs him to a big-money contract to sing on the Toothpaste Hour. In one of the most artificial plot contrivances ever, it turns out that Baker also has an invention that can make old radios sound like new, and this gets him entangled with a swindler (John Eldredge). The somewhat homely and naive Baker also winds up with three women after him: opera singer Alice Brady, conniving Gertrude Michael, and radio station secretary Jane Wyman, who of course is the one he ends up with, but not until a series of con jobs, ransackings, and misunderstandings (not to mention another case of quinsy) sends him back to the simple life in Pewamo. Baker is rather drab, but he is surrounded by a competent cast, highlighted by the delightful Brady, in high diva mode, and the reliable Frank McHugh as his friend and manager. Harry Davenport has a small role as a Pewamo doctor, and if you watch carefully, you may see William Hopper and Dave O'Brien in uncredited bits. Baker's baritone song, "If I Were a Lily," is a hoot, and a later song, "Remember Me," was nominated for an Oscar, but otherwise the music is not particularly memorable. [TCM]

Monday, January 16, 2006


I usually restrict my blog reviews to movies from the 30's to the 60's, but I'm making an exception here because this film was directed by Samuel Fuller, a cult B-movie director whose heyday was in the 50's and 60's. I haven't seen many of his films, but the ones I have seen (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, THE NAKED KISS) are excellent. This one from fairly late in his career was released by a major studio but made on a relatively small budget and it shows. The directorial style is a little awkward at times, and the screenplay could have used some more work, but it's an interesting war movie which gains in power as it goes along, and looks rather ahead of its time now. The episodic narrative, based on Fuller's own experiences, follows a group of five soldiers from the First Infantry Divison (the Big Red 1 of the title) through the entire course of WWII. The sergeant is Lee Marvin; we first see him in WWI in a memorable prologue involving a rampaging shell-shocked horse and the killing of a German soldier who is desperately trying to tell his killer that the Armistice has been signed. Marvin and his four young riflemen are the focus of the film, which begins in North Africa in 1942, then jumps ahead through Sicily, Normandy (D-Day), Belgium, and Germany (the German surrender in 1945).

The various episodes range in tone from humorous to gory to surreal, and sometimes all three in one. Natives cut the ears off of dead German soldiers and use them to barter with the GIs for cigarettes. Marvin, in a makeshift hospital, gets a wet kiss on the mouth from an admiring German soldier. The soldiers help a woman give birth in a tank. A young man gets a testicle blown off by a land mine and Marvin causally tosses it over his shoulder, assuring the kid that he only needs one. The most surreal scene involves a raid on an insane asylum; a Resistance member (Stephane Audran) has been planted there, and as she dances about as though she's in another world, she cuts the throats of several German soldiers. When gunfire breaks out later in the dining room, the inmates continue eating as though nothing is happening until one inmate grabs a machine gun and starts firing at random. That night, Mark Hamill (the passive blond solider who is uncomfortable with the idea of killing) has wild sex with Audran right in the middle of a room of sleeping inmates. The other soldiers, all of whom (in direct opposition to war movie conventions) survive the war, are Robert Carradine (a writer and stand-in for Fuller), Bobby DiCicco, and Kelly Ward. A running sick joke is that the soldiers quit bothering to learn the names of new infantry members because they'll just wind up dead, and indeed, like the guest stars on Star Trek, all the newbies do wind up dead, though one guy (Perry Lang as a big blond doofus) actually survives for a couple of episodes, and when he does get killed, he manages to bring his killer down as well. The individual episodes are good, but much of the dialogue is corny or falls flat, especially Lee Marvin's many "punch lines": in a particularly intense segment set in a liberated concentration camp, Hamill fires repeatedly at a German soldier who is hiding in a crematory oven, but the mood is shattered when Marvin comes up from behind and says, "I think you got him." Carradine, who narrates the film, never seems comfortable with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, but generally the actors are fine, though they never look or feel very battle-hardened, at least as such things are generally conveyed in Hollywood movies. The budget constraints didn't allow for many "epic" battle scenes, but I imagine that Fuller's message, "Surviving is the only glory in war," is better served by that. For all its small disappointments, this film (the reconstructed 2-1/2 hour cut currently on DVD) is well worth watching. [DVD]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


This enjoyable film belongs to one of my favorite genres, the light-hearted spy thriller, which flourished in the early days of WWII until the more serious documentary style thriller became popular during the 50's. This one is notable for the unusual star combo of Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray, who wind up working very well together. The film, set in 1939, begins with MacMurray, an Rhodes Scholar teaching at Oxford, marrying Crawford and taking off for a honeymoon. They are waylaid by an officer of the Foreign Service who asks them to find out the whereabouts of a British contact in Germany who has the plans to some super-secret magnetic mines; he has vanished and the couple is to try and find him and bring the information back. As they follow the trail, they come into contact with a number of fine character actors in interesting roles: Conrad Veidt, fresh from playing the hissable movie Nazi Major Strasser in CASABLANCA, plays a shadowy German figure who winds up being a good guy (and sadly, this was his last role before his untimely death of a heart attack just 2 months after this movie was finished); Basil Rathbone does the villain honors as a former Rhodes Scholar turned Gestapo officer whom MacMurray and Crawford can't quite shake; Reginald Owen is the kidnapped man with the plans; Felix Bressart has a small role as a bookseller contact; Cecil Cunningham is Rathbone's mother and Bruce Lester is a British spy whose wife was killed at Dachau. There is a nice scene right out of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH involving an assassination at a Liszt concert, and it's fun to see MacMurray and Crawford in old-age makeup near the end as they try to elude Rathbone and get to the border. Though the tone of the film darkens in places, the pace never flags. [TCM]

Sunday, January 08, 2006


A runaway-bride screwball comedy done on a B-budget, which means that some of it works fine, but you keep wishing that the acting and writing were just a little bit sharper. Wendy Barrie is the daughter of department store owner George Barbier; when we first meet her, she is running out on her wedding to gold-digging Prince Paul (Rafael Storm) with the blessings of her father. Jumping on a double-decker bus, in full wedding gown splendor, she bums some bus fare from Kent Taylor, a mild-mannered bespectacled fellow (who looks exactly like Clark Kent!). He's into reading books about success, although he's not having much luck setting the world on fire in his job as an accountant (at, of course, her father's store). To explain the wedding gown, she tells him that she's a model and that she just quit her job because of an abusive boss. He takes her under his wing, letting her stay at his apartment while he stays with a friend. She is taken with him, largely because he's interested in her for herself, not her money. When the store, which is the target for a hostile merger by competitor Thurston Hall, has to make some cuts, they start with unmarried males, so Taylor tells his boss (Charles Lane) he's married, and he proposes to Barrie, who accepts, and they even adopt a baby (a bizarre plot point that doesn't really work; it just seems like an attempt to throw more "madcapness" into the mix). Taylor moves up in the organization, co-workers figure out who he's married to, and the news eventually reaches Taylor. He resents the subterfuge, leaves Barrie, and quits, getting hired by the competition and triggering a heated sales competition. Both the romance and the merger get resolved in a rather rushed manner in the last ten minutes. Taylor and Barrie are about evenly matched and work together fairly well, though both would get wiped off the screen by Grant and Hepburn, or Powell and Loy. Cecil Cunningham is good in a small role in her usual high bitch mode. There's an amusing sequence near the end involving the baby running loose on a department-store floor, but generally the movie is at its best during its first half. [TCM]

Thursday, January 05, 2006


This Fritz Lang movie has been released on DVD as part of a film noir boxed set, but I think it will disappoint true noir aficionados; aside from the fact that much of the action takes place at night, this isn't noir, but a romantic triangle melodrama with good performances and some awfully purple dialogue which comes off like second-rate Tennessee Williams. Barbara Stanwyck is Mae, a woman who returns to her hometown, a California fishing village, having been beaten down by the big city; she was mistress to a rich, married man and was left penniless when he died. She moves in with her hunky younger brother (Keith Andes) and, apparently ready to settle for protective domesticity, starts dating big lug fisherman Paul Douglas, not terribly smart or handsome, but a considerate, salt-of-the-earth guy anyway. However, she soon finds herself attracted to Douglas' buddy, Robert Ryan, a restless type who works as a projectionist at the local theater. Ryan can be charming, except when he drinks, but he is also a cynical and deeply unhappy man stuck in a bad marriage to a traveling burlesque dancer. Stanwyck eventually marries Douglas and they have a baby; a year later, Ryan, divorced, re-enters Stanwyck's placid and boring life, tempting her into a steamy affair. She decides to leave with Ryan, but Douglas won't let her take their child. After Douglas and Ryan come to blows, Stanwyck ultimately decides to stick it out with Douglas and domesticity.

Stanwyck is the reason to watch this; she gives a solid performance, making her character sympathetic and multi-layered. Despite the various twists and turns Mae takes, Stanwyck, in the current vernacular, always "keeps it real." I can't quite say the same for Ryan, though in his defense, the character as written too often feels like just a character rather than a real person. The best scene in the movie is when a hungover Ryan lustily grapples with an emotionally vulnerable Stanwyck at the kitchen sink; you can feel their frustrations, their doubt, and their heat. Douglas is good at conveying the sensitive side of the lug; you can see why Stanwyck likes him (even if you're never convinced that she loves him). There is a vaguely parallel subplot, involving Andes and his girlfriend, Marilyn Monroe, that isn't developed very deeply, but it's nice to see two gorgeous people kiss and bicker occasionally. Andes is nice looking and good in his limited role, and it's too bad he never achieved full leading man stardom. J. Carroll Naish has a small but pivotal role as Douglas' nasty uncle. The opening, a panorama of shots of the sea and a near-documentary look at the fishing boats and the canning works, feels a lot like the opening of John Sayles' LIMBO. [TCM]

Sunday, January 01, 2006


The name "Svengali" has entered popular culture usage tp refer to anyone who has some overwhelming power or influence over someone else, usually in a negative sense. The producers and managers of such "manufactured" music stars as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys are called "pop svengalis"--you'll get lots of hits on Google with this phrase. The term comes from the character of Svengali the hypnotist in the novel "Trilby" by George DuMaurier, popularized by this early talkie starring John Barrymore. This is sometimes referred to as a borderline horror film, but anyone approaching it that way will be disappointed, though the stark, oversized sets and atmospheric lighting are reminiscent of CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and make the movie a stylistic kin to the later Universal horror films, especially SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Barrymore's Svengali is as pathetic as he is sinister; with overly theatrical makeup, he comes off like a grungy cross between Fagin and Dracula. In the first scene, we see him in a shabby apartment with a rich woman (Carmen Myers) who has just dumped her husband for Barrymore, but when he finds out that she neglected to get a cash settlement from the hubby, he glares at her until she goes running from the room and jumps in the river to her death. In the apartment of two artists (Donald Crisp and Luis Alberni) who enjoy pulling pranks on Barrymore), he meets a lovely young model (Marian Marsh) with whom he becomes obsessed. Although she seems to be romantically interested in blond fop Bramwell Fletcher, Barrymore uses his hypnotic powers to make her think that she's just a common tramp and not good enough for Fletcher. He fakes her death and spirits her away, turning her into an operatic sensation. Barrymore realizes he can force her through hypnosis to love him, but he remains unsatisfied because, as he says, making love to her is like talking to himself. Five years later, Fletcher and his artist friends come upon her at one of her performances and her memory is jogged enough to cause trouble. Barrymore and Marsh flee to Egypt but Fletcher follows them and in a nicely melodramatic ending, Barrymore drops dead, Marsh loses her voice and also drops dead, while Fletcher looks on helplessly. I wasn't terribly impressed with Barrymore or Fletcher, but Marsh is quite good (and quite sexy, and even gets a brief nude scene). One scene showing Barrymore's power over Marsh is justly famous: as Svengali stands at his window, the camera pans out of the room and across the roofs of Paris into Marsh's room, where we can tell that she feels his presence (accompanied by the loud sound of rushing wind). As horror, this doesn't quite cut it, but as a period melodrama, it's an interesting exercise in visual style. [TCM]