Wednesday, March 29, 2006


This is an overlooked little gem; a fairly traditional mystery plot in a "boy's adventure" setting. C. Aubrey Smith is a British Army officer who has been dismissed from his post in India for issuing orders that led to a massacre of dozens of men. His four sons return to England to give him moral support; he insists that he is innocent and that the orders were forged, and he claims to have evidence, but before he can share it, he is murdered in his own home (and it's made to look like a suicide). The sons drop everything and scatter across the globe on the track of a munitions company which has ties to insurgents in India. The two sons who go to India (barrister George Sanders and Oxford student William Henry) get some help from a man who served under Smith (Barry Fitzgerald). In Buenos Aries, the other sons (Richard Greene, a diplomat, and David Niven, an officer in the RAF) are accompanied by Loretta Young, who is tagging along because she has the hots for Greene (though Niven thinks he has a chance with her, too). They fall in with three men with ties to the company, Atlas Arms, and they discover that the company is selling guns to both the government and the rebels. A bloody skirmish leads to the death of one of the three men, but the brothers get clues from the other two (Alan Hale and Reginald Denny) that lead everyone to Egypt where it turns out that Young's father (Berton Churchill) might be the big man behind everything, even though he was not directly responsible for Smith's death. Could Young herself have had a hand in it? Things are resolved most satisfactorily in the end and Smith's name is officially cleared. Greene, Niven, and Young get the most screen time, but all the leads are fine, and they all look like they're having fun, especially Niven who gets most of the jokes, such as when he asks Greene to say something American, like, "OK, Toots!" or when he does a squeaky voice like "Donald Mouse." Greene is appropriately dashing, Smith is appropriately stiff-upper-lipped, and Hale and Denny are appropriately slimy. The Buenos Aries sequence is particularly well done, with Young getting hysterical when she witnesses an execution in the street. The ties between the characters were a little hard to follow, but it all becomes as clear as it needs to be. Also with John Carradine and Cecil Cunningham. This may not be filmmaking of the highest order, but it's competent, exciting, and fun. [FMC]

Sunday, March 26, 2006


This was, according to the book "Star Spangled Screen," the first Hollywood movie made about American combat in WWII, and it was based on the actual battle for Wake Island, a small landing strip not far from Pearl Harbor. In fact, the script was begun before the battle ended and was changed to accommodate history (more or less--the movie ends with the Marines fighting the landing Japanese troops to the last man, but in reality, the few left surrendered). It must have been an effective piece of dramatic propaganda in its time, and it set up a model for later combat films such as BATAAN and CORREGIDOR, though the basic plot of a group of soldiers defending a post to the last man goes back at least as far as 1929's THE LOST PATROL. The movie begins in the weeks before Pearl Harbor as we meet two groups of men who have been sent to the island, a band of Marines and a construction crew who are building facilities for planes that land for refueling. The main conflict in this part of the movie has to do with the no-nonsense major in charge (Brian Donlevy) and the head of the civilian workers (Albert Dekker) who rebels against taking orders he thinks will impede the progress of his men. We also get to know a few of the Marines, primarily the hot-headed but good-hearted William Bendix (scheduled to go on furlough back to the States to get married) and his high-spirited buddy Robert Preston. There is also a brave pilot (Macdonald Carey) who is so zen in his attitude, you just know he'll come to no good end, and a corporal named Goebbels who is the brunt of lots of "Heil Hitler" jokes. Of course, as Bendix is ready to leave on the morning of December 7th, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reaches Wake (foreshadowed by a visit on the island just days earlier by a Japanese diplomat). Though he has a chance to leave, Bendix stays with his buddies, and Donlevy and Dekker patch things up, and all of them gird their loins for the inevitable invasion. Carey gets the news that his wife was killed at Pearl Harbor and he takes on a suicidal one-man mission to bomb a Japanese carrier. Donlevy adopts a holding technique, inspired by the old saying, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," that works for a time, but ultimately the film ends with a total slaughter of the Americans. The performances and writing are OK, but characterizations are on the slim side throughout, and the buddy-buddy hijinks between Bendix and Preston (almost unrecognizable with a buzz cut above a very young face) get a little tedious. Also in the cast are Walter Abel as a Marine commander, Damian O'Flynn as a pilot who is strafed by Japanese bullets as he parachutes from his damaged plane, Philip Terry, and Frank Albertson. Worth watching, especially as a look at the beginnings of the WWII combat propaganda film. [TCM]

Friday, March 24, 2006


David Lean, usually known for his epics, directed this intimate little gem of romantic frustration played out between two ordinary middle-class people in England during WWII. Celia Johnson is a plain-looking suburban wife and mother who spends her Thursdays taking the train into town to do shopping and lunching. One day, while waiting for the train home, she has a chance encounter with a doctor, also plain-looking and married (Trevor Howard), who helps get an irritating speck of dirt out of her eye. She thinks nothing of it until, over the next few weeks, they run into each other again and are soon dining and going to movies together, and an attraction develops. Little actually happens between them, though both feel guilty as they begin planning their meetings each week. Eventually, they decide to stay in town one night to consummate their affair at the apartment of a friend of Howard's, but the friend arrives home before they've had a chance to do anything more than look guilty, and she runs away. At their next meeting, he tells her that he's leaving for a job in South Africa and they spend one final, torturous day together, their final moments at the train station spoiled by a gossipy friend of Johnson's. In a surprisingly intense moment, he touches her on the shoulder and leaves forever. She rushes out to the train tracks and briefly contemplates suicide, but in the end returns to her husband, who remains unaware of her passionate encounter.

The story is the stuff of countless romance novels, but the acting, music, and camerawork make it rise above its origins. Johnson and Howard are both perfect as ordinary people swept up in an unexpected passion that has the potential to change their routine lives forever. The entire film is told from Johnson's point of view (we never see Howard's home or work life) as a flashback while she's sitting with her husband on the night when Howard has left for good. In fact, the opening scene of their departure at the train station, which makes little sense to us, is replayed in its entirety at the end when we realize all the ramifications of each line of dialogue and each gesture. There is some critical debate as to how physical their relationship gets--we see them kiss at least once, and I assumed that they had sex during an afternoon ride in the country, but I might be bringing a more contemporary attitude to this than I should. At any rate, it is a heartbreaking and seemingly realistic look at two people trapped in a romantic fantasy which probably could not have had any happy ending at all. The film is carried by Johnson and Howard, though there are two important secondary characters, a barmaid at the train station (Joyce Carey) and the station guard (Stanley Holloway), who we see carry on a more casual flirtation. Nice use of trains, location shooting, spare sets, and the music of Rachmaninoff--being a child of the 70's, I was yanked out the film briefly when the melody that Eric Carmen used as the basis for his song "All By Myself" came roaring up on the soundtrack. [TCM]

Monday, March 20, 2006


Though this film is available on VHS because it stars Lucille Ball, the reason to watch this second-feature romantic comedy is her co-star, James Ellison, a B-movie leading man, known mostly for his work in westerns. The two play a couple (an accountant and a housewife) stuck in a rut after a few years of marriage--in an amusing opening, we see their high school yearbook entries; his major is accounting, hers is home economics, and neither one lists any outside interests. Their rut is only heightened by her mother, Emma Dunn, a nagging busybody in-law who lives with them in their small apartment. One day, Ellison is drafted by his co-workers to meet and entertain the visiting big boss, an old fuddy-duddy whom no one likes, but instead the old codger's son (Robert Coote), a lively playboy type, shows up and Ellison finds himself drawn into a whirl of late-night "business" parties. This irritates Ball who, egged on by Dunn, throws him out. Coote feels responsible for Ellison's problems and tries to intercede; he gets Ball to come to a costume party dressed as a South American beauty named Mercedes, hoping the two will find a new spark meeting that way, but the plan backfires when the real Mercedes actually shows up at the party. A woman who's in on the plan tells Ellison that the masked Latina is his wife in disguise, but as he's flirting with her, his disguised wife walks in and a comedy of errors results. Of course, the two reconcile at the end (in a plot development out of the Lunt/Fontanne classic THE GUARDSMAN), with Ellison asserting himself by tossing his mother-in-law out. Ball is OK in her dual role, and in a situation that is similar to many she would encounter in "I Love Lucy," but she's a little low-energy for the role, especially during the film's later hi-jinks. Dunn is fun as the meddling bitch mother, and the handsome and charming Ellison does a very nice job with the lead; he's number-crunchingly bland in the beginning, but undergoes a believable change under Coote's influence. I know Ellison mostly as the bad brother in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE but now he's on my radar and I'll be looking for him in other films. One final note: when Ellison is decked out in a matador outfit at the party, he actually looks a bit like Desi Arnaz! [TCM]

Thursday, March 16, 2006

FOUR SONS (1940)

This remake of a silent John Ford film is probably not as good as the original, but it's still an affecting family melodrama with good performances and some striking cinematography. In pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, in a village on the German border, we follow the story of a widowed woman (Eugenie Leontovich) and her four sons. Chris (Don Ameche) is the sensible, likeable one who the rest all lean on a bit; Joseph (Robert Lowery) is the sensitive artist; Karl (Alan Curtis) is handsome and a bit brooding; Fritz (George Ernest) is the innocent teenager who, if this were a musical, would be played by Mickey Rooney. They are a happy family--none of the brothers is even a wee bit jealous when Mama gives her savings to Joseph so he can go to America to fulfill his artistic ambitions, and Chris is quite understanding when his longtime girlfriend (Mary Beth Hughes) realizes she's actually in love with Karl. However, the political climate soon causes problems. Karl's membership in a German "social" club becomes threatening when Austria falls to the Germans and Karl starts wearing a swastika, which puts him at odds with Chris. War is declared then averted when Czechoslovakia agrees to give up the Sudatenland, but Joseph, who is doing anti-German editorial cartoons in the States and knows that the war cannot be held off indefinitely, tries to arrange to get his family passage to America. Unfortunately, their clearance comes too late to save everyone. I don't want to spoil the film by outlining all the characters' fates, but there are fistfights and gunfights and round-ups and battle casualties, climaxed by Hitler marching through the village at sunrise. The ending is on the grim side, and not all the people you expect to survive do. The film is hardly a noir, but much of it is set at night, and there is some very effective use of shadowy sets and evocative camera angles. One chase sequence, set at night in a swamp, reminded me of something out of a Universal horror film. The acting is fine; Leontovich, a renowned Russian stage actress, overdoes it a bit at times, but she is balanced by the sons generally underplaying their emotional scenes. An underrated film to catch if you can. [FMC]

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I always try to pay close attention when watching the movies that I review here, and with DVDs and our Tivo-like Digital Video Recorder, it's very easy to pause if I get interrupted or back up if I get distracted and miss something. However, with this movie, I got interrupted and distracted and never really had to pause to keep up with the film, and I think I can even give it a totally fair review even though only about two-thirds of it really registered on me. That's because it's not so much a theatrical feature as it is a variety show with elements of a sitcom sprinkled in. It comes off as a low-budget quickie made to cash in on the folk music fad that was big in America in the early 60's, just before the Beatles changed the face of popular culture. Though this was released in theaters, it feels much more like a TV show, both in terms of content and style. Even the actors are mostly known for their TV appearances. The minimal plot involves a spat between TV director Peter Breck (Nick on "The Big Valley") and his ex-girlfriend, network executive Ruta Lee (who has over 100 TV series guest appearances listed at IMDb). He winds up in a college town in Missouri, discovers a traveling "hootenanny" show, and gets the performers on a national TV special. Of course, he also gets back together with Lee, but honestly, after the set-up of that narrative in the first 15 minutes of the film, no one seems too concerned about the plot. Most of the movie is intended as a showcase for the musicians, and though there are some big names here like Johnny Cash (who does a silly, sanitized version of "Frankie and Johnny") and the Brothers Four (who sing a novelty number called "Frogg"), the more interesting performances come from less famous acts. The black duo Joe & Eddie do a rousing gospelish number, "There's a Meeting Here Tonight," and Judy Henske (who is still making music today) does a couple of compelling songs. Most notably, she combines folk, gospel, and a little bit of a beatnik vibe in a very intense version of "Wade in the Water." I used the rewind function of my DVR to go back and re-watch this song twice, once to make sure that I really saw what I saw, and the second time to enjoy the strange, almost creepy number. The catchiest tune is the title song, written and sung by Sheb Wooley, of "Purple People Eater" fame. Teen starlet Pamela Austin plays the hootenanny hostess, and cute Joby Baker (whom I remember as a DJ on the short-lived TV sitcom "Good Morning, World") is Breck's buddy who helps to reunite him with Lee at the end. Fun to have seen once, though certainly not a keeper (unless you've got a Joby Baker rarities collection going). [TCM]

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Pre-Code comedy which is probably an early example of what amounts to a sub-genre of romantic comedies in which a free-wheeling playboy finds true love and settles down with one good woman. Here, the playboy is Lowell Sherman, who was nearing 50 and looks every year of his age and more, so he truly looks like he's going to seed; I guess that may make the situation more realistic, but I had a difficult time buying Sherman as an active gold digger magnet. When an old flame of Sherman's (Mae Murray), who has since gotten married, shows up and wants to continue their arrangement, Sherman sends her away and vows to turn over a new leaf, but then a chance meeting with a young woman (via a fender-bender) sets him back on his philandering ways. Meanwhile, aspiring chorus girl Claudia Dell brags to her secretary sister Irene Dunne about having an assignation with Sherman. Dunne thinks it's a bad idea and heads over to Sherman's Park Avenue place to break it up, but it turns out that Dell is actually being wooed under false pretenses by Sherman's butler. However, Sherman is thoroughly charmed by Dunne and the rest of the film concerns his attempts to convince her that he can be a one-woman man, appearances to the contrary. The tone is light, with an occasional melodramatic flourish, as when Murray's husband comes gunning for Sherman; I suspect that in 1931, some of the material was laugh-out-loud funny, but I rarely did more than smile. One interesting shot has Murray dressed in a flimsy little thing that makes her look naked as a jaybird. Dunne is just OK in her third starring vehicle. Leading man Sherman directed the movie (and also directed Katharine Hepburn's breakthrough picture MORNING GLORY). The screenplay is by John Howard Lawson, later one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


The critics tend to like this Western, maybe because it's in color, or maybe because it was directed by Fritz Lang. I thought it was about par for the course for a western of the era. Randolph Scott stars as a member of an outlaw gang which also includes his brutal brother (Barton MacLane). One day, while on the run from the law, Scott finds Dean Jagger, a surveyor for Western Union, injured in the desert. He picks Jagger up and drops him off safely in town. Months later, they meet up again: Scott has renounced his ways and Jagger is chief engineer for the telegraph company. Out of gratitude, Jagger gives Scott a job as head scout for a group of men setting out through Indian territory to string telegraph lines. Robert Young plays a tenderfoot dude from back East who has come out for some manly work. Despite his citified ways and overly spiffy clothes, he's basically a good egg and is eventually accepted by his fellow workers, but there's trouble when both he and Scott take a shine to Jagger's cute sister (Virgina Gilmore, who looks a bit like June Lockhart) who works in the main telegraph office. There's even bigger trouble ahead from a band of drunken Indians who raid the small camp of line workers. It turns out they did it because Scott's old gang, trying to sabotage the line in the name of the Confederacy, paid them to. Events come to a climax when MacLane and his men burn down the worker's campsite, leading to a confrontation between the brothers which plays out in town at a barber shop, more like in a gangster movie than a Western. The lead actors are all fine, and the color cinematography is lovely. John Carradine plays a doctor, and Chill Wills and Slim Summerville provide solid if predictable comic relief. [TCM]

Sunday, March 05, 2006

HEIDI (1937)

As a child, I managed to miss out on all the forms of this classic story, though I remember my dad getting agitated during the infamous NBC incident in which a TV adaptation of "Heidi" bumped the exciting ending of a football game. I'd avoided this movie mostly due to its syrupy reputation as an archetypal Shirley Temple "orphan" story, but it wasn't as sappy as I'd feared, although I can see where young children might get upset near the end. Temple is the title orphan; her snippy aunt (Mady Christians) has apparently gotten tired of taking care of her and dumps her with her grandfather (Jean Hersholt), a man known in his Swiss mountain village as cranky and reclusive. Naturally, Temple thaws Hersholt out without breaking a sweat, but just when they seem to have established themselves as a loving family unit, fully accepted by the villagers, the wicked aunt returns and takes Temple away to Frankfurt. Her scheme essentially is to sell Temple to a rich family as a companion for their crippled daughter. The girl (Marcia Mae Jones) and her father (Sidney Blackmer) are perfectly nice but Temple wants to go back to Hersholt, who has traveled to Frankfurt to find her, and the last 20 minutes or so of the movie consist of the two looking for each other on the city streets on Christmas Day. After a few tears have been jerked, there is a happy if rather abrupt ending. All the actors mentioned above are good, especially Christans, although Arthur Treacher steals all of his scenes as the city family's butler. Also notable are Helen Westley as an old blind friend of Hersholt's, Mary Nash as Jones's wicked guardian, who is trying to hold onto Temple for mercenary reasons of her own, and Thomas Beck as the village pastor. I guess because of audience expectations, a musical number with Temple is shoehorned in as a fantasy sequence, but it's the weakest part of the film. Generally, quite bearable; given its Christmassy climax (including a lovely, long tracking shot to the tune of "Silent Night"), I'm surprised this hasn't become a holiday TV tradition--or maybe it has and I haven't noticed. [FMC]

Friday, March 03, 2006


A grand old entertainment, combining a romance, an "exotic lifestyle" melodrama, and a disaster adventure. Set on the British-ruled South Seas island of Manikoora, the story revolves around a native couple, played by Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour, who have just gotten married. After a rapturous wedding night, Hall has to set off to Tahiti as first mate to ship captain Jerome Cowan; once he's there, Hall gets into a fist fight with a rich white man who has him thrown into jail for 90 days. The native people, we are told, don't take well to imprisonment (something about their natural freedom, though I can't really think of *any* people who enjoy losing their freedom) and Hall tries several times to escape, leading to many extensions of his sentence until he racks up over 15 years. Islanders try to talk the governor of Manikoora (Raymond Massey) into intervening to commute Hall's sentence, but Massey, out of his respect for the law, refuses, claiming that Hall is setting himself above the law. This causes strains in the relationships between Massey and virtually everyone else on the island, including his wife, Mary Astor. Somewhere around year 8, Hall finally makes good on an escape but accidentally kills a prison guard in the process. He swims 600 miles to the island and is reunited with his wife (and daughter, whom he's never seen); Massey finds out and vows to get him, but a killer hurricane comes blowing in, destroying the island and changing the lives of all the residents.

The storm sequence, basically the last 30 minutes or so of the film, is very well done, a mix of actual full-sized effects and miniatures, and it's this aspect of the movie that gets most of the critical attention, but the acting is quite good as well. Hall, though looking fine shirtless, is a bit lightweight and Lamour doesn't have much to do, but the rest of the cast is excellent: Massey as the stiff-backed martinet, Astor as his wife, torn between loyalty to him and sympathy for the island couple, Thomas Mitchell as the wise if occasionally drunken doctor, C. Aubrey Smith as the priest (the only character to have a truly tragic end), John Carradine as a sadistic prison warden, and Cowan in the relatively small role of the captain who, like Astor, is sympathetic to Hall but not in a position to help much. During the first half of the film, there are some nice, ominous scene endings in which the actors leave but the camera remains as we see and hear the wind pick up in strength. Highly recommended; hopefully it will someday be issued on DVD with appropriate extras. [TCM]