Tuesday, February 28, 2006


An OK pre-Code romantic comedy which ends too traditionally, with the independent woman giving things up for the insecure, passive male. We first meet Frank Albertson and Loretta Young as they graduate from college. Albertson is a bandleader who has a chance to take his band to Paris, but Young is determined to forge her own career so she stays behind and looks for a job in New York City. Eventually, she finds herself in the right place at the right time and becomes secretary to advertising executive Ricardo Cortez. Showing initiative, she starts writing copy on her own. Cortez gives her a job as an ad writer (admitting she's good but also noting to a fellow exec that she'd be worth the money just to have as an attractive office ornament) and also starts trying to woo her. Albertson, hearing of her success, comes back to New York and in a comedy of errors scene, we (and Cortez) find out that Albertson and Young have actually been married all along. Albertson wants Young to leave her position but she doesn't want to, so they split up. There is some more see-sawing between the two as he becomes successful in New York (thanks partly to Young, who had recommended his band to a radio sponsor) and Cortez continues to pursue Young. Finally, Cortez tries to engineer divorce proceedings by talking the couple into hiring a professional co-respondent (Joan Blondell) to be caught with Albertson, but at the last minute, the couple straighten everything out, with the implication that she will leave her job and live in wedded bliss with her passive, insecure man.

The short movie is mostly enjoyable (if you can overlook the muddled sexual politics), and all the actors are fine. Albertson is good in a rare leading role; he played best-friend juvenile parts for many years into his adulthood, and is probably best known as Sam Wainwright, George Bailey's romantic rival in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Cortez is as slimy as he should be, but we can also see his charm, and Young is spunky and gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word). Blondell injects a nice blast of comic energy in her short scene near the end. A couple of good lines: Cortez to Young (whose character's name is Claire): "I was married once to a girl named Claire--that was one of my Follies of 1920." A frustrated Young to Albertson: "You're only good for two things: making music and making love." Cute, but no lost gem. [TCM]

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Enjoyable romantic soap opera with tons of noir atmosphere and Joan Crawford at nearly the peak of her high melodrama period. She plays the title character, a successful commercial illustrator who lives in Greenwich Village (she's not rich, but like TV's "Friends," she certainly lives comfortably) and is the mistress of married lawyer Dana Andrews. He's happy with the situation, but she's feeling ignored due to a string of broken dates. She begins a casual relationship with Henry Fonda, a slightly naive soldier and widower just home from the war; at the end of their first date, he tells her he loves her which freaks her out a little, but with Andrews' non-commital state bothering her more and more, they fall into a more serious relationship. They are aware that they are using each other to escape their respective romantic woes, but they get married anyway and move to a cottage on Cape Cod where Fonda works as a ship builder. Andrews goes out to do a case on the West Coast and when he loses, he returns and tries to start things up with Crawford, but she rejects him. Andrews' wife (Ruth Warrick) finds out about the affair and a nasty, very public divorce ensues. The wrap-up of the triangle plays out a bit like a 30's screwball comedy, except it's not comic. Aside from an overly pat ending, this is interesting viewing.

Crawford is very good, mostly underplaying a role that could have led to real scenery chewing. Andrews is her match as a basically nice guy who seems not to want to hurt anyone, but who hurts everyone, including himself. Fonda was an interesting choice--he's not sexy at all and he's a little too passive, which makes it unlikely that Crawford would settle for him (and it's clear that whatever choice she makes, she would indeed be simply settling), but I got used to him eventually, though he remains too lightweight to play a character with several personal demons--symbolized by crazy cacophonous music played on the soundtrack while he thrashes about in his bed. There's an odd little subplot which implies that Warrick physically abuses her younger daughter (Connie Marshall); though Andrews knows about this, he feels OK about agreeing to give Warrick full custody of her in order to get Crawford off the public hook during the trial, and that just seems wrong, even allowing for the era. There isn't much of a supporting cast; a starlet named Martha Stewart plays Crawford's roommate, Peggy Ann Garner is Andrews' other daughter, and Walter Winchell has a one-line cameo in a scene set at the Stork Club. Although the movie is not film noir, it has a very shadowy, noirish look--I kept wondering if Crawford just couldn't afford to turn on a few lights now and then--which is effective. I like that Andrews calls almost everyone he talks to, including Fonda, "Honeybunch," and I like that Fonda does it right back at him in a later scene. Good melodramatic fun. [FMC]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

IVANHOE (1952)

I have an admitted prejudice against 50's movies in general, and 50's costume epics in particular, but I've been trying to expand my horizons lately, so I made a point of watching this, which crops up frequently on Turner Classic Movies. On the plus side, I was pleased and surprised, knowing almost nothing in advance about the original book, that this is a story which is contemporaneous with the events of the Robin Hood legend, and specifically with the wonderful Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD film from 1938. Robin himself is a (very minor) character here, known as Robin of Locksley, and Sebastian Cabot has a small but noticeable role as one of Robin's men. That's about it for the plus side. Not that the movie is a total disaster, but because it's difficult not to compare it to the earlier Errol Flynn film, it winds up losing on every count. As in ROBIN HOOD, the action is set during the period of the Crusades when King Richard the Lionhearted is being held hostage in Austria and his villainous brother John (Guy Rolfe) has taken the throne. Chivalrous Saxon knight Wilfrid of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) vows to raise the money to free Richard and to fight John and his obnoxious Norman cohorts (led by George Sanders). After failing to reconcile with his estranged father (Finlay Currie), Ivanhoe finds help from Jewish community leader Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who raises funds for the ransom in exchange for promises of official tolerance. Robin and his men contribute some of the booty they steal from the rich to the ransom as well. Along the way, Ivanhoe fights and jousts and falls in love with two women: childhood friend Rowena (Joan Fontaine) and Isaac's daughter (Elizabeth Taylor, quite lovely at age 20). There is a castle siege sequence which was likely quite rousing in 1952, but which is difficult to take seriously now as it plays out too much like the parody siege in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Robert Taylor is attractive but wooden, as usual. Fontaine is OK, but she loses out to her sister, Olivia de Havilland, who played a very similar role in the '38 ROBIN HOOD. Sanders does a nice job with his usual mustache-twirling villain part, and aside from Aylmer, the only other actor to make much of an impression is Emyln Williams as Ivanhoe's buffoonish squire. The sets and costumes are fine, but this would look more impressive if it had been shot in widescreen. [TCM]

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Or, Four Ways of Looking at The Outlaw.

1) Just the Facts, Ma'am: This film puts three historical figures from the Old West together in a western romance melodrama. Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), sheriff of Lincoln, New Mexico, is happy to see his rowdy old buddy Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) who has come to town looking for the varmint who stole his strawberry roan horse. That person is young Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel), and Doc and Billy enter into a strange friendship, which Doc resents, centered on stealing the horse back from each other. Billy also meets Rio (Jane Russell), Doc's hot-blooded girlfriend, and after an initial (and quite literal) roll in the hay that plays out like a rape, the two take up together, and even get married in secret (surely a ploy to get around the censors of the era). After some spirited chases involving lawmen and Indians, the relationships between the four are sorted out via some gun play and a clever trick that contradicts the historical record (as though historical accuracy was on anyone's mind) but leaves Billy alive to ride off with Rio in the end.

2) All the Fuss: Supposedly Howard Hughes made this movie primarily to show off his discovery Jane Russell, and much has been made of the way her breasts are highlighted here. I must say that at least one shot of Russell walking across the screen startled me right off the couch, but for the most part, she comes off as almost demure compared to the way many a starlet is exposed these days--she's got nothin' on Lil' Kim, for example.

3) A Gay Man Watching The Outlaw; or "Brokeback Outlaw": [Spoilers follow!] Though there's no doubt that both Doc and Billy are full of lust for Rio, and that Billy and Rio do some intense grappling, I found the most compelling love relationship to be the triangle of Doc, Billy, and Sheriff Pat (well, there's also Doc's horse, which Doc seems to like better than Rio but not as good as Billy, but who want to go there?). Pat and Doc have been friends for years, but Billy replaces Pat in Doc's affections (and "affections" is definitely the right word, as Hughes wasn't afraid to have the characters express real affection for each other). When Pat realizes what's happened, he reacts like a scorned lover, breaking things off with Doc "for good and all." In the end, with passions high all around, Doc threatens to kill Billy but instead shoots his ears, then hugs him. Pat kills Doc, but Billy ties Pat up and buries Doc as himself, so he can leave with Rio and let folks think that Pat killed him. Another gayish point: the relationship between Rio and Doc's maid (Mimi Aguglia) is a lot like that of Karen and Rosario on "Will & Grace."

4) The Good, the Bad, and the Gorgeous: I'm willing to concede the title of worst movie ever to either Plan 9 from Outer Space or Manos: The Hands of Fate, but this one is certainly in the running for Worst Movie Ever Made by Mainstream Filmmakers and Actors Who Should Have Known Better--though approached on a camp level, there are some perverse pleasures to be had. Hughes' direction is almost amateurish, the music (which loudly underlines every moment of excitement or humor) even worse. Even Mitchell and Huston, normally excellent actors, are at sea here. Buetel is, at times, absolutely beautiful, but as an actor, he's a glassy-eyed stick puppet. Published accounts have suggested that Hughes forced Buetel into a sexual relationship in exchange for a long-term contract, and for whatever reason, Hughes didn't let Buetel work for the next eight years. At any rate, his career never recovered from his association with Hughes. As far as the good, surprisingly enough, it's Jane Russell. She's sexy and is fine in her limited role; though she's theoretically the catalyst for most of the action, she has little to do in the last third of the film. I did have some fun watching this, but it really is a bad movie, and I'm astonished that some critics (including Maltin and Halliwell) cut it so much slack. Yes, it has its moments of campy fun, and the portrayal of the psychological aspects of the characters' relationships held some potential, but geez, is this ever a bad, bad movie. [TCM]

Friday, February 17, 2006


Basically, a screwball comedy without the central romantic element that's usually present. Your enjoyment of this will depend on your tolerance for the buddy comedy of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, kicked here into ultra-high gear. The two play a screenwriting team who are getting tired of churning out formula pix ("boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl") for their studio boss (Ralph Bellamy). Nevertheless, they get assigned to a western which is supposed to save the fading reputation of cowboy star Dick Foran. Pregnant studio waitress Marie Wilson faints in Bellamy's office and the boys get the idea to write their movie around the newborn baby, named Happy. Happy's a hit but no one's happy, and the complications (including a case of measles that sidelines both the baby and the cowboy) pile on rather chaotically to the predictable "happy" ending. The whole thing has the rather forced frantic feel of Cagney's much later comedy, ONE TWO THREE, and I was exhausted by the end of the first hour of this 90 minute movie. There are several small joys to be had, including some jibes at studio thinking: for example, the studio seems proud of the fact that there are no English actors employed in the filming of "Young England"; the baby/cowboy movie is billed as being based on Shakespeare; the baby is billed as "the Crown Prince of Comedy, the King of Tragedy, and the Emperor of Emotion." The trumpeters that barge in at the end of each "act" (the movie is based on a play and it shows) are a hoot. Cagney and O'Brien do have comic chemistry with each other, even if Cagney is constantly in danger of going so far over the top that he'll exit the movie. The fine supporting cast includes Frank McHugh as Foran's agent and Bruce Lester as a British extra who falls for Wilson. Ronald Reagan has a small role as an MC at the premiere of the cowboy movie, and film buffs will recognize James Stephenson and Dennie Moore in bit roles. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


This is the Hollywood version of the ordeal of Samuel Mudd, the doctor who unwittingly set the leg of the injured John Wilkes Booth and was found guilty of conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As in all historical films, the facts are played around with considerably in the service of entertainment, but this is a well-told tale. Warner Baxter is Mudd, presented here as a simple country doctor and slaveowner whose sympathies were with the Confederacy. The movie begins with an understated reenactment of Lincoln's murder followed by Booth's journey through pouring rain to Mudd's home where he asks for medical attention. After he peels off his boots, he tries to scratch his engraved name from the inside, but only partially succeeds. The next day, military police follow Booth's trail, find the boots, and arrest the doctor. A military court, the members of which have been instructed to ignore the legal principle of "reasonable doubt" in order to get guilty verdicts to avoid "the collapse of the Union," finds Mudd (and several others) guilty of conspiracy; most of the prisoners are executed by hanging, but Mudd is sentenced to a life of hard labor on a prison island in the Florida Keys. A sergeant on the island (John Carradine) takes particular delight in torturing this man he assumes had a direct hand in killing the president; back home, Mudd's wife (Gloria Stuart) tries every legal channel in attempts to free her husband. A daring escape attempt, in which Mudd is aided by a former slave of his (Ernest Whitman), is foiled and Mudd and Whitman are thrown into a deadly solitary cell, but when a yellow fever epidemic swamps the island and lays low prisoners and guards alike, Mudd is freed to help fight the disease. This eventually earns him the respect of all, even Carradine, and he is given a pardon and returns home to his loving wife.

In real life, Mudd spent four years on the island and was released after helping fight yellow fever, but he never regained his health or his livelihood. In the film, Mudd's innocence is never in doubt, but actually the case against him did have some merit, as he apparently lied to authorities about not knowing Booth--the two had met at least twice before the assassination, though Mudd insisted that he did not recognize Booth when he set his leg. Baxter is excellent, playing his part without the histrionics that must have been tempting. Standouts in the supporting cast include Harry Carey as the commandant of the island, Maurice Murphy as an orderly who helps Mudd during the epidemic, and Claude Gillingwater as Mudd's father-in-law, an inveterate Confederate (no poem intended). The prison island is referred to in the opening as an American Devil's Island, and indeed the 1939 B-movie DEVIL'S ISLAND with Boris Karloff (reviewed 6/15/05) stole its basic plot situation wholesale from this film, even though it is set in France and has nothing to do with the Civil War. Not reliable as a history lesson, perhaps, but a compelling movie. [FMC]

Thursday, February 09, 2006


[Spoilers included] A period melodrama which shows some potential in the beginning, but eventually bogs down with two colorless leads taking attention away from two more interesting characters. Doctor George Brent meets a quirky old woman (Olive Blakeney) on a train. She is heading home for a family reunion after several years in a sanitarium (due to a heart condition) and he hears just enough about her family to pique his interest. When she winds up dead a few days later, he gets involved with her brother (Paul Lukas) and his lovely wife (Hedy Lamarr). Lamarr is a docile and distracted person who, among other things, seems to be in the habit of sending herself bouquets of daisies and claiming that she didn't. Lukas fears that she may be mentally ill, so Brent agrees to help. However, when Brent realizes he has accidentally wound up with one of Blakeney's bags from the train, he finds out more information about her family's strange background and quickly realizes that Lukas is the one with the mental problem; he's deliberately trying to drive Lamarr insane, and is completely messing up their young son in the process. It's easy to see that this is a warmed-over take on GASLIGHT, even to being set in the past, with Lukas in the Boyer role, Lamarr as Bergman, and Brent as Joseph Cotten. As such, it mostly comes off as a second-rate gothic thriller, missing most of the thrills and atmosphere that helped make GASLIGHT fairly enjoyable. Lamarr is OK and Brent is his usual wooden self; someone younger and more energetic would have added some needed spark--because I just watched MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET again, I'm imagining someone like John Payne in the role, or even Robert Taylor. I wish more time had been given to the old woman--she's an interesting character, played well, and I wanted to know more about her. Likewise, Lukas's role could have used some enlarging; it never feels like all of his secrets have been revealed. Albert Dekker as a friend of Brent's who, by accident, spills too much info to Lukas and brings about the "perilous" climax, is OK. Jacques Tourneur directed and there are some nice stylistic touches here and there--good period sets, some nice photography--but unfortunately it will always wind up being compared to GASLIGHT, which, while not one of my very favorite movies, is still a better movie on all counts. [TCM]

Monday, February 06, 2006


This is one of the first movies that James Cagney and his brother produced as independent filmmakers, trying to break away from the strictures of the studio system. It looks like it was made on the cheap, but after a while, it exerts a certain pull and the last 15 minutes or so are quite exciting. The plot, based very loosely on historical fact, is about an American journalist (Cagney) serving as editor of an English-language newspaper in Tokyo in the late 20's who breaks a story about a secret Japanese plan for world domination initiated by Premier Tanaka (John Emery). A fellow reporter (Wallace Ford) who comes into possession of a copy of the document winds up dead, but not after leaving the papers with Cagney. Sylvia Sidney, a Chinese temptress in league with Tanaka's men, is introduced to Cagney in order to seduce him so she can get hold of the plan, and she does, but after some manhandling by her colleagues, she goes over to Cagney's side and manages to smuggle the plans out of the country while Cagney faces off with a gang of violent goons, using judo to get the upper hand (although his formidable judo skills are of no help when the goons pull out guns in the last few minutes of the movie). As the fisticuffs fly, the plot loopholes grow--when the bad guys realize that Sidney is in league with Cagney, she is essentially put under house arrest in a hotel but we never see how she manages to escape, let alone get out with the plan intact. Frank Lloyd, the director, displays little in the way of interesting visual style, though there is an interestingly shot scene showing one of Sidney's Japanese handlers committing hari-kari after he realizes she has escaped. In the Hollywood tradition of the era, most of the major Japanese characters are played by Caucasian actors (including Robert Montgomery and John Halloran) but it's pulled off well and it's not distracting. Rosemary DeCamp, who played Cagney's mother in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, is Ford's wife, who also meets a bad end, and Porter Hall is Cagney's nervous publisher. The slam-bang ending makes the movie worth watching. [TCM]

Thursday, February 02, 2006


[Spoilers follow!!!] For its time, this must have been an interesting attempt to combine recent history with romance, but it doesn't really hold up now. I suppose one reason that I found it lacking was that it kept reminding me two much better films, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and REDS. Leslie Howard is a British diplomat who is on his way to Moscow in 1917 during the tumultuous days of the Russian Revolution. The main concern of the British is that the revolutionaries will pull the Russian troops out of the war against Germany. On a stopover in St. Petersburg, Howard attends a party at the British Embassy which is marred (in a scene echoed in ZHIVAGO) when troops and marching masses collide in the streets. Howard comes to the aid of Kay Francis, who is being hunted for shooting a soldier, and the two hit it off. Later, when Lenin is swept into power, the British close the embassy, leaving only Howard and a few diplomat buddies to sit around drinking and playing poker. Francis, now an important person with the Bolsheviks, returns and flirts with Howard, but when she overhears Howard decode a message that asks him to take on an unofficial "Mission: Impossible" task to influence the current government to stay in the war, she betrays him by telling her bosses. After Lenin is shot and falls into a coma and the government does indeed pull the troops, Howard goes underground to help rebuild the White Army. Francis finds out and is torn in her loyalties. Eventually, she rats on Howard, but when she learns his that the garret where he's hiding is marked for destruction, she goes to him to await certain death. At the last minute, they are saved when Lenin comes out of his coma and pardons all political enemies. The actors are fine; I think they are let down by the script which tries to cover too much in too short a time. The idea of mixing the tumult of the Revolution with personal romance worked better many years later in REDS. I especially liked William Gargan, Philip Reed, and Cesar Romero as the trio of diplomats who hang out with Howard. Ivan Simpson has a nice bit as a loyal butler at the British Embassy. The ending, in which a grim situation suddenly just vanishes and our couple is free to leave for England and a new life together, is a little hard to swallow. [TCM]