Saturday, May 27, 2006


This is only the second film I've seen that co-stars Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor (DELICIOUS, from two years earlier being the other). They were a very popular movie team in the early sound era, but I cannot fathom what their appeal was. They're both moderately attractive, but they're both also rather wooden. By the mid-30's, Farrell was getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing a callow youth (he was 33 here, and looks 33 although he's playing a college graduate at the start of the film) and their appeal to audiences may have been wearing thin as this was their last movie together. The plot focuses on four friends just out of college (Farrell, Gaynor, Ginger Rogers, and James Dunn) who head off to New York City to find their dreams. The city kicks their asses at first, though they slowly find their career paths, and as they do, their romantic paths criss-cross--Farrell thinks he loves the saucy Rogers; she loves Dunn, sort of, but will take Farrell whom Gaynor pines after. Rogers leaves the band of friends to go gold digging among the Fifth Avenue playboys, driving Farrell to poverty and illness, but Gaynor sticks by him and nurses him back to health. The two agree that they're in love and plan to wed, but Rogers soon returns to threaten their future happiness. There is virtually no suspense regarding who will wind up with whom, and the only real pleasures to be had waiting for the inevitable ending are in the supporting performances, not just of Rogers and Dunn, but also of Beryl Mercer as the head of a salvage store where Gaynor finds employment while wating for a job in journalism, and Gustav von Seyffertitz, playing against type as a nice guy doctor. Watch closely for Jane Darwell, Mischa Auer, and Shirley Temple (who, unless I missed something, has no dialogue and only appears on screen for a moment). [FMC]

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

William Lundigan Double Feature:

Like a number of actors who never quite made it to the first rank of movie stars, William Lundigan is someone who I think was much better in supporting roles or as a B-movie lead. I prefer him in 40's films such as SUNDAY PUNCH or SANTA FE TRAIL (also the later INFERNO), but in the early 50's, Fox starred him in a handful of A-movies, two of which I'm writing up today. I'D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN is based on an autobiographical novel from 1910 about the life of a "circuit rider's" wife, that is, the wife of a minister who travels around a circuit of churches in a geographic area, in this case, the hills of Northern Georgia. Susan Hayward is the city girl who marries Lundigan, the country preacher. While the two actors make a believable and appealing match, it's never explained how they happened to pair up in the first place. Hayward quickly gets the hang of hill country life and the rest of the episodic film follows the various joys and sorrows of the pair and their flock. Gene Lockhart is a storekeeper whose daughter (Barbara Bates, Phoebe from the last scene of ALL ABOUT EVE) is dating mildly wild youth Rory Calhoun; Lockhart's not happy about it, but since Lundigan likes the boy, we know that by the end of the film, Dad will come around. Alexander Knox plays an outcast atheist who won't allow his kids to attend church, but a Christmas charity event opens his mind a bit. There are tragedies along the way: a boy drowns during a Sunday school picnic, one character loses a baby, and during a flu epidemic which takes several lives, Hayward has a crisis of faith and almost goes back to the big city. Lynn Bari has a small role as a big city gal who sets her cap for Lundigan by getting him to give her one-on-one bible lessons, until Hayward breaks it up and sends Bari packing. Veteran character actress Ruth Donnelly appears as a neighbor. Some of the lovely exterior scenes were shot on location in Georgia. Lundigan gives a solid and believable performance. [FMC]

DOWN AMONG THE SHELTERING PALMS doesn't fare as well; it comes off as a second-rate mix of elements of South Pacific and Teahouse of the August Moon. In the months after WWII, a group of GIs stationed in the Pacific are anxious to get home, but instead find themselves put in charge of occupying tiny Midi Island. The staggering number of attractive native women ("50 Dorothy Lamours!" yells one soldier when he arrives) puts the men in a good mood at first, but after strict non-fraternization rules come down, frustration sets in. Lundigan is the captain in charge, David Wayne is his sidekick, and Jane Greer is the lovely daughter of a missionary, who is given an office job and arouses the pent-up passions of the men. Early in the movie, Greer sings for the entertainment of the men, but later, it's startling when Lundigan and Wayne burst out in song in the middle of a conversation. There are a few other songs here and there, but the movie doesn't commit to being a musical. Mitzi Gaynor, a native woman who is given to Lundigan as a gift (by native chief Billy Gilbert) gets a couple of numbers, and Gloria DeHaven, as a conniving reporter, sings "All of Me." Gene Lockhart is fine as the missionary, famous talk show host Jack Paar has a small role as a GI, and Alvin Greenman (Alfred the janitor in Miracle on 34th Street) has a nice comic turn as a secretary. George Nader, who would briefly be a Hollywood glamour boy in the late 50's, and Lyle Talbot are credited with small roles, but I didn't notice either one, though I did see Lee Marvin in a one-line bit. Lundigan seems at sea here, like he's uncomfortable in the part, and though it's not a terrible movie, there's no real reason to search this one out. [FMC]

Monday, May 22, 2006

INFERNO (1953)

If there was a genre called "desert noir," this melodrama would be its crowning gem. As it is, many reviewers call this one of the best 3-D movies ever made. Unfortunately, I've only seen it in "flat" format, but it's still a good solid thriller. The movie begins smack in the middle of the action, with very little backstory presented: millionaire Robert Ryan has been left to die in the desert, with a broken leg and almost no food, by his wife, Rhonda Fleming, and her lover, William Lundigan. The first half of the film cuts back and forth between Ryan, as he hobbles through the desert looking for help, and the two lovers who bide their time as their plan to lead the police astray works for a while. Because Ryan, who is apparently an unlikable son-of-a-bitch, has a habit of vanishing for days at a time, no one misses him for several days; by the time his business partners get worried and Fleming misdirects the searchers, the two assume that Ryan will be long dead. However, the hubby proves to be quite resourceful, able to splint his leg, dig for water, and hunt small animals for food; these scenes are exciting at first, but get to be a bit tiring, as least partly because virtually all of Ryan's dialogue is delivered as voiceover interior monologue and lacks immediacy. The illicit lovers stay apart until the rains come, when they assume that any tracks they've left will be obliterated, then they fuck like bunnies (or so we are to assume given their hungry embrace as the storm arrives). Soon, Lundigan flies out to the scene of the crime, doesn't see a corpse, and realizes that Ryan may still be alive, leading to the tense finale with all three stuck in the desert and a doozy of a fistfight between Ryan and Lundigan in a burning cabin. Unlike in some 3-D films, the gimmicky technique isn't terribly obvious until the end, when a lit lantern is thrown at the camera, and the cabin's flaming ceiling collapses right in the viewer's face. Ryan is his usual rugged self; Fleming, whom I've not seen much of, is quite good as the sexy femme fatale; the blandly handsome Lundigan does a nice job in the thankless role of the vacant lover whom you know from the beginning will probably not get out of the triangle alive. The even more handsome Carl Betz, best known as Donna Reed's husband on her early 60s sitcom, has a small role as a sheriff, and Henry Hull plays a grizzled old prospector who plays an important role near the end. I would have liked a bit more background on all three characters; as it is, we have no idea whether the lovers planned Ryan's injury, or improvised and took advantage of an unplanned accident. We also never see evidence of Ryan's unpleasant personality, which I guess helps get us on his side fairly quickly. I had never heard of this film before I ran across its description on our onscreen cable guide, and given my anti-50s bias, I almost skipped it, but I'm glad I didn't. Now if Fox would put it out on DVD, in 3-D, with the cool glasses... [FMC]

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Likeable second-feature starring my latest B-movie fave William Lundigan (see APACHE TRAIL). Set in Brooklyn ("the melting plot of the world," according to the opening narration), the predictable story centers on the denizens of a boarding house that caters strictly to boxers in training, and therefore, according to the rules set down by J. Carroll Naish, no dames allowed!--except for Ma (Connie Gilchrist) who runs the house and looks after the boys. The trouble starts when Gilchrist lets her visiting niece (Jean Rogers) sneak into the place; she's a chorus girl who hasn't had any real breaks yet and when Gilchrist decides the girl is getting a bit jaded, she insists that Rogers stay with her for a while. The boxers come to accept her, and one (Lundigan), who is considering entering medical school, falls for her. However, the young Swedish janitor (Dan Dailey) is also enamored of Rogers, and when it's discovered that the untutored Daily has some raw boxing talent (a "Sunday punch," which apparently is a wild knockout swing), he is taken up by aging manager Guy Kibbee. Dailey and Lundigan become relatively friendly rivals in and out of the ring, but when Rogers' career takes off, the rivalry heats up, leading to a climactic bout with Rogers in the audience. She's rooting for Dailey because she thinks that if Lundigan loses, he would go back to school and maybe settle down with her. There are few surprises in the storyline, but the colorful characters are engaging, as are the actors playing them. The two leading men are both quirkily handsome, and do OK in the ring, though both seem a little too lightweight to be playing scrappy boxers. Sam Levene is amusing as the chief trainer, and Leo Gorcey and Rags Ragland make for colorful support. Rogers is the weak link; she looks fine but is not convincing as a world-weary would-be gold digger. Dane Clark and Ava Gardner, in their pre-star days, have bit parts. I quite enjoyed this sweet-natured comedy. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Apparently, this is a remake of a 30's Bette Davis vehicle called SPECIAL AGENT which I have not seen. Taken on its own, it's a typically well-produced Warners B-movie, but not quite as enjoyable as others of its ilk; it stumbles in attempting to cram at least 90 minutes worth of plot into a movie that's only 54 minutes long, so while the narrative moves along at a fast clip, it winds up consisting mostly of short dialogue-heavy scenes of exposition with virtually no action until the last ten minutes. Because of a crackdown on gambling, mobster Gilbert Roland takes his operations to the sea on the SS Sylvania, just beyond the three-mile limit. When one of Roland's associates is caught embezzling, he winds up dead, triggering a desperate attempt by the law to get Roland any way they can. Although the gambling ship is beyond their grasp, if they can prove that the games are rigged, they can get him behind bars. Enterprising reporter Wayne Morris, who has a relatively friendly relationship with Roland, agrees to help the cops, and he gets his own help from Roland's secretary, Jane Wyman. He snaps pictures of the rigged games, but the case collapses when Roland's hired goons kidnap Wyman so she can't testify. Naturally, the good guys win out in the end. I like Wyman in her early spunky blond roles, and Morris (see picture at right) always makes a solid, handsome B-movie hero, but the two don't get much of a chance to develop chemistry because so much focus is on the heavy plotting at the expense of characterization. Way too much information is conveyed through close-ups of newspaper headlines; this would be a good movie to show beginning writing students since it falters by telling rather than showing. Still, the hour passes quickly and Morris, Wyman, and Roland are all fine; Wyman even survives having to deliver the old cliche, "It looks like curtains!" Also in the cast are John Litel as the D.A., Roger Pryor as one of Roland's doomed associates, and George Reeves in a one-line part as a reporter calling in a scoop. [TCM]

Monday, May 15, 2006

BACK PAY (1930)

It's taken for granted today that the coming of sound films ruined many an actor's career. John Gilbert is the most notable example, though it has been argued in retrospect that the quality of his voice and his acting didn't have as much to do with his decline as a general desire on his studio's part to make a clean sweep of their starring slate. This movie, however, certainly serves as evidence that some actors were indeed unable to make the jump from silent style to sound style. Corrine Griffith made over 50 movies between 1916 and 1928, but her career faltered in sound movies; she only made a handful of them before retiring in 1932, and this was her next-to-last one. Her voice is OK (though unfortunately she is given one song at the very beginning of the film, and she performs it like it's sheer torture for her), but she gives a wooden and unappealing performance. She plays a small-town girl who, though still in love with her beau (unambitious department store accountant Grant Withers), is itching for something bigger, in part to get away from her frowzy, piggish relatives. When obnoxious salesman Hallam Cooley offers to take her off to the big city, she goes with him and soon moves through a string of men until she winds up comfortably kept by businessman Montagu Love. Years later, during a quick visit to her hometown, she runs into Withers again and they have a chat during which it becomes clear that there is still a spark between them. He goes off to war, gets gassed and goes blind, and returns home. Griffith, knowing Withers only has a few weeks to live, gets permission from her terribly understanding sugar daddy to marry him and take care of him during his last days. When he dies, he does it like Ali McGraw in LOVE STORY, looking quite healthy, as the Armistice is celebrated in the streets outside his window. Though the movie is bearable, it feels awfully long for its 55-minute running time. Griffith is only part of the problem; the narrative is not fleshed out very well. The most interesting scene in the movie juxtaposes Griffith and Love at a high society party with Withers suffering on the battlefield. The title comes from a line of hers at the party: "If the wages of sin is death, I've got a lot of back pay coming." The problem is that the movie never really shows her "sinning" or its consequences on her; she never looks dissolute or miserable, and when she marries Withers, it seems more like a slightly unpleasant job than a real sacrifice. No attempt is made at any kind of period atmosphere, so when WWI rolls around, it's startlingly out of the blue. Louise Beavers is quite chipper in a small role as Griffith's maid. [TCM]

Saturday, May 13, 2006


I'm on the fence about Gary Cooper. Generally, I think he's fine, but rarely do I find him to better than that. For me, he's at his best in lively adventure films, and he's pretty much the best thing about this adventure movie, which I assume is an almost totally fictional version of the life of the title explorer. In 13th century Venice, Marco (Cooper) is sent by his father to China to meet with warlord and emperor Kublai Kahn (George Barbier) in hopes of establishing safe trade routes. Along the way, he is introduced to pasta, which old sage H.B. Warner calls "spaghet," and fireworks. Once there, he ingratiates himself with Kahn and falls for his daughter, the Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie), much to the dismay of the slimy Ahmed (Basil Rathbone), who makes a point of showing Polo his torture room filled with hungry vultures kept chained to the wall until they're needed. Polo is sent by Kahn to be a spy in the camp of rebel leader Kaidu (Alan Hale) where he gets romantically entangled with Kaidu's wife (Binnie Barnes), an entanglement which Kaidu encourages as it keeps her occupied while he has his own affairs. Ultimately, Kahn is defeated in his attempt to invade Japan and on his return to court, discovers that Ahmed has engineered a coup which assures him the princess's hand. Not to worry, though, because Polo has gotten Kaidu and his army to carry off a revolt against Ahmed. Along the way, Polo is inspired to put the children's fireworks he'd seen earlier to good use as an explosive and Ahmed winds up falling to his death in his own torture room, in a pit of hungry panthers. Parts of this have the feel of a good light-hearted boy's adventure movie, and the role of hero fits Cooper well, but the supporting cast leaves something to be desired. Rathbone and Hale are fine, but Ernest Truex doesn't have the chops to play Polo's oafish sidekick, Gurie is an uninspiring heroine, and Barbier does not make a particularly powerful Kahn--despite his heavy make-up, I kept thinking of his persona as the bumbling doctor in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Robert Grieg is a chamberlain with extraordinarily long fingernails, and Lana Turner has a small role as Barnes's handmaiden. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


A so-so soap opera with all concerned operating at about half-speed. Barbara Stanwyck, in a role that might have suited Bette Davis better, plays a woman with two sons who was recently widowed (although the movie is set in 1942, her husband's death is not war-related). Her meddling mother (Lucile Watson) who herself has more or less remained in mourning for years after the death of her own husband, is upset that Stanwyck wants to doff her black clothes so quickly. Stanwyck is clearly interested in having a romantic life again, though not with oafish family friend Jerome Cowan, who comes on to her in the car. Her buddy Eve Arden takes her on a skiing trip and, when she has a minor accident on the slopes, George Brent comes swooping in to help her. He's a homefront Army major on vacation and eventually the two hit it off; even though she's not quite ready to commit to a relationship, they do begin dating, which starts the winds of scandal brewing among her friends. When he is called up for overseas duty on New Year's Eve, she decides on the spur of the moment to go off to New York to spend his last couple of days with him (implying an intimate overnight stay), and this causes her sons to run away. Things are resolved with the unexpectedly compassionate help of Watson, though a 21st century audience might not be happy with the Production Code outcome. Stanwyck is OK, coming off best in her teary moments; Brent is as wooden as usual, though he has just enough surface charm so that we can believe that Stanwyck might fall for him, particularly over the slimy Cowan and the safe but boring lawyer, Warner Anderson. Bobby Cooper and Scotty Beckett are fine as the kids, and John Ridgely has a small role as Arden's husband. My favorite performances are from the two "dragon ladies" in the cast: Watson as the opinionated mother (who has a great Christmas Eve scene as she sneaks into Stanwyck's kitchen and discovers to her dismay that Brent has been accepted into the family circle) and, in a much smaller role, Cecil Cunningham as a gossipy friend. Sadly, Arden doesn't have nearly enough to do except to stand solidly by Stanwyck. [TCM]

Friday, May 05, 2006


A charming domestic comedy involving two alumni from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET: the director, George Seaton, and the star, Edmumd Gwenn. The humor is leavened a bit with some dark shades, which gives the movie a distinctive edge. It uses the post-WWII GI college boom and simultaneous housing shortage as plot points, which may confuse current viewers a bit. Gwenn plays a college professor who is contemplating suicide because he's being forced into retirement. On a chilly winter afternoon while feeding birds on a park bench, he meets up with chatty young Jeanne Crain, wife of GI student William Holden, who tells Gwenn how desperate they are for housing, especially with a baby on the way. Gwenn agrees to put in a good word for her with college administrator Gene Lockhart, and Lockhart decides to place the couple in Gwenn's attic, which Crain re-makes into a cozy little apartment. Of course, Gwenn is a bit cold about the whole thing at first, but eventually he warms to them, agreeing to teach an informal class for the GI wives who don't want to feel left behind by their husbands, and even giving up the idea of killing himself. There are complications: Crain suffers a miscarriage; Holden decides he doesn't want to wait for a degree and drops out to take a job at a used car dealership; Gwenn tries to talk him into coming back to school, and when he thinks he's failed, he returns to his suicidal ways, but all things are put right in the end. Much of the charm of the film is in its details: Crain is forever making up statistics to argue her side of any point; Gwenn cusses by reeling off the names of the books of the Bible; in the one moment that made me laugh out loud, Gwenn tells a bad joke to his class of housewives and Lockhart gives the camera a wonderful split-second reaction. I loved the use of the beautiful Irish song, "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls" in a couple of scenes. [FMC]

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Like DAYBREAK (see below), another Jacques Feyder romantic drama with Ramon Novarro as an exotic romancer. In this one, set in India, he's Karim, a young man traveling to Bombay with his father, an entourage, and some valuable jewels. Novarro sees a holy man meditating at the edge of a cliff and, thinking he's in danger of falling, grabs him to save his life. The holy man explains he was not in danger, but he still expesses gratitude to the lad, tells him that gratitude is the highest command, and says that their paths will cross again. Sure enough, when a gang of bandits ambush the travelers, the holy man reappears and saves Novarro's life by hiding him. Unfortunately, Novarro's father is killed, and the bandits get everything except one incredibly valuable diamond. Once in Bombay, the grimy and destitute Novarro tries to sell the gem, only to have the jewel dealer try to cheat him out of it by claiming that Novarro stole the diamond from him. A British man (Conrad Nagel) who witnessed the transaction shows up just in the nick of time and Novarro is freed. Remembering the words of the holy man, he declares himself forever in Nagel's debt. The story skips ahead many years as Novarro, now the wealthiest merchant in India, meets up with visiting Brit Madge Evans at a polo game. They are smitten with each other and, despite the protestations of her guardian (Marjorie Rambeau), she sneaks off with him on an illicit jungle trip. The aunt calls her brother in to deal with the situation, and of course he turns out to be Nagel, the man who whom Novarro remains in debt. Unlike DAYBREAK, the ending to this one is not so happy, though the sad outcome is redeemed somewhat by the return of the holy man who tells Novarro that earthly passions destroy love and the two are better off separated. Once again, Novarro makes an interesting "exotic other" romantic lead, and Feyder directs rather blandly. Also with C. Aubrey Smith and, in a tiny bit, Ray Milland. [TCM]

Monday, May 01, 2006


A romantic melodrama based on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler, who also wrote the novel on which Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT was based. The film begins with a young Austrian soldier being encouraged by his commander, C. Aubrey Smith, to commit suicide because he cannot meet a "debt of honor." He does indeed kill himself, in a rather startling scene showing his hand hanging limply out of a bathtub with a large puddle of blood forming beneath it. We then see Smith dealing more charitably with his nephew, the handsome and callow soldier Ramon Novarro (see right); Smith agrees to pay off the boy's debts but pressures him to marry the respectable but boring Karen Morley. At his engagement party, Novarro and his buddies sneak off to a fancy club (which seems to be the most sophisticated brothel in existence) and he meets the lovely but quiet Helen Chandler, a music teacher who is at the party only to deliver a manuscript to Jean Hersholt, an overbearing cad who tries to take advantage of Chandler. Novarro saves her from his attentions and the two go out for a romantic night on the town, ending at her place. The next morning, he leaves money for her and she suddenly realizes he has made a whore out of her. In anger, she goes back to the rich Hersholt and lets him have his way with her. When Novarro meets up with her some time later, she is an experienced mistress but is clearly unhappy with her position. At the gaming tables trying to win enough money to pay a debt, Novarro gambles with Hersholt and loses to him, but leaves with Chandler. Again, they spend the night and this time, she leaves *him* some money. Of course, he won't accept it and goes back to his barracks prepared to kill himself as the honorable way out. Will his uncle let him off the hook? And if he does, will Chandler take him back? Much of the story is indeed light in tone, but still the all-around happy ending rings false, especially the ludicrous finale with Novarro, having left the army, kissing the blissful Chandler who has returned to her Marian-the-librarian piano-teacher career. The casual sexual relationships are all treated openly in this pre-Code film, and there's a strange scene involving Novarro's manservant prancing about in Novarro's underwear. Chandler is convincing as the delicate innocent who grows up in a hurry; Novarro is equally good in his early scenes but his change is not played as effectively. Directed rather plainly by Jacques Feyder, known for his later French classic CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS. [TCM]