Wednesday, June 28, 2006


A dysfunctional father-son story, disguised as a gangster movie. Tyrone Power is the privileged son of rich businessman Edward Arnold. When Arnold is indicted for embezzlement and sent to jail, Power drops out of his Ivy League college out of embarrassment. Power tells his father off and Arnold disowns him (figuratively, if not literally, by saying he'll never give his son another thought as long as he lives). Power tries to get a job, but finds his family name a disadvantage. A year later, when a big shot gangster (Lloyd Nolan) who went to jail the same time as Arnold gets out ahead of schedule, Power goes to Nolan's shyster lawyer (Charley Grapewin) for help getting Arnold out, but instead Power winds up working for Nolan, under the ridiculous fake name of Johnny Apollo. Power and Arnold start to reconcile, but when Arnold finds out that Power is working for a thug and a shyster, he disowns his son a second time. Dorothy Lamour is a nightclub singer who hangs with the bad guys; she and Power take a shine to each other. Grapewin decides to turn a new leaf and rat on Nolan, making a deal with the cops that will let Power off the hook for any shady activity, but after Nolan kills Grapewin, both he and Power are both sent to prison, of course, the same prison where Arnold is being kept. Lamour pleas with Arnold to take his son back, and the exciting finale involves an attempted escape which goes awry. Unfortunately, a weak happy coda ends the movie on a false note. All the actors are fine, with Lamour showing more depth than she is able to in the "Road" movies that she is remembered for. She even gets a glitzy little musical number, "Dancing for Nickels and Dimes." Grapewin is also able to flesh out his character more than usual, and Lionel Atwill and Marc Lawrence are both fine in smaller roles. Nolan is realistically nasty and charming in turn, and Power manages to come off as more than just a callow spoiled youth (and it doesn't hurt that we get to see Power's physique early on when he's participating in a college rowing meet). Arnold is especially good at making a potentially cardboard character rounder and more sympathetic than he might have been. [FMC]

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Perhaps because it's been difficult to see over the last several years, this Technicolor Busby Berkeley musical from 20th Century Fox has gained a spectacular reputation that it can't quite live up to. It's essentially a cross between two musical "subgenres": the musical numbers are revamps of the kinds of numbers that Berkeley choreographed for Warners in the 30's (primarily in the Gold Diggers series), and the narrative framework (built around a stymied showbiz romance usually involving mistaken identity) is taken from the Fox musicals of the 40's which featured players such as Betty Grable and John Payne; the novelty of color does seem to inspire Berkeley to ever higher flights of fancy and makes the song and dance routines worth seeing, but the plotline and acting are just average. The story focuses on soldier James Ellison, in New York on leave, who meets singer Alice Faye at the fancy Club New Yorker. He follows her to the Broadway Canteen, one of those wartime clubs set up just for servicemen. She's not supposed to leave the club with any soldiers, but he arranges a meeting later that night and soon they're in love but are forced to part when Ellison's leave ends. Months later, he returns to Faye a hero, but she finds out that he's been engaged for years to a socialite (Sheila Ryan); how will the triangle be resolved? There is more to the plot, mostly some folderol about the Club New Yorker folks rehearsing a huge new show at the country estate of Ryan's rich family, but it's all secondary to the colorful musical numbers, none of which could ever fit inside a real nightclub, including Carmen Miranda's legendary "Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat," which involves the biggest, most phallic bananas one could imagine. Benny Goodman looks very uncomfortable singing "Minnie's in the Money" directly to the camera, Charlotte Greenwood gets one of her traditional high-kicking dances in, and the final number, "The Polka Dot Polka," is spectacular. Ellison's slicked-back hair makes him unappealing, but Faye is quite lovely, and does a fine job in a fairly thankless role. Edward Everett Horton and Eugene Pallette do variations on their usual roles as fussy sidekick and gravelly-voiced grumbler, and entertainers Phil Baker and Tony DeMarco appear as themselves. A couple of amusing lines: Faye saying to Ellison, "Stop acting like Don Ameche and get me a taxi," and Miranda on seeing off a sailor: "It's nice work if you can get him." The movie is worth seeing for the campily excessive dance sequences, but don't believe the hype. [FMC]

Thursday, June 22, 2006


In the 1940's, it seems like every detective who had his own movie series (the Falcon, the Saint, the Lone Wolf) was a reformed thief. Boston Blackie (played by Chester Morris) was no different. These are two of the 14 hour-long B-budget programmers in which Morris appeared, and like many second-feature films of the era, they play out like episodes of a TV series. Neither film is really a whodunit because we know that from the start. In CONFESSIONS, the second in the series, Harriet Hilliard (later to be Harriet Nelson of "Ozzie and Harriet" fame) is a woman in desperate need of cash for her sickly brother, so she agrees to auction off a valuable statue of the emperor Augustus through art broker Walter Soderling. However, we know that Soderling has a tidy little side business producing art forgeries in a secret, high security basement room. He and his cronies plan to sell the fake and keep the real one. However, at the auction, which is attended by Hilliard, Morris, and his eccentric millionaire friend Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan), Hilliard notices that the statue is fake. One of the thugs takes a shot at her to shut her up, but the bullet hits and kills Soderling. Morris pulls his gun as well, so the cops arrest him for murder, but their case gets a little shaky when the corpse vanishes (the cronies stuff in into the fake statue through a false back). Morris escapes, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) becomes a laughing stock, Hilliard, who was wounded in the shooting, still needs money, and Corrigan buys the fake statue for a lark. The rest of the movie is a fast-paced series of chases, traps, and escapes, as Morris tries to help Hilliard and clear his own name, while the crooks try to get the fake statue back. Everyone winds up trapped in the basement studio for the climax, with some nice fisticuffs, thrilling gunplay, and a potentially deadly fire. There's even room for a comic subplot involving an old flame of Morris's (Joan Woodbury) who tries to extort some money out of him--the best scene in the movie may well be when she goes on a furniture-smashing rampage in his apartment. Morris, one of my favorite 30's leading men who by this time had fallen from Hollywood's A-list, is appropriately light and breezy and the rest of the cast is OK, though distinctly second-string, even George E. Stone as Morris's comic sidekick The Runt (I was wishing for someone like Frank McHugh or Allen Jenkins). Still, a very enjoyable hour balanced out nicely with humor and action.

RENDEZVOUS is the ninth Boston Blackie film and, though it has its light moments, it is more intense with a more modern feel. In this one Corrigan gets Morris involved in a search for his nephew (Steve Cochran) who has escaped from an insane asylum and may have homicidal intentions. When Morris meets up with him, Cochran claims that he's not crazy, but that he's about to come into an inheritance and his relatives want him locked up and out of the way. Of course, we can tell from the look in his eyes that he's lying, and sure enough, in short order, Cochran strangles Morris (just enough to knock him out) and goes on a killing spree, using Morris's identity, which naturally gets the police involved. Morris has to stay out of the clutches of the law and protect Sally Brown (Nina Foch), a dance hall girl with whom Cochran is infatuated. Mistaken identities drive the rest of the plot, as Foch thinks Morris is the killer, and thinks the killer, who can be quite rational and charming, is Boston Blackie. The finale, a tense confrontation between Cochran and Foch, is the best scene in the movie. The comic interludes don't mesh with the rest of the film, especially an uncomfortable scene in which Morris and sidekick Stone dress up in blackface as hotel maids. Morris does get to do a magic trick or two--magic was one of Morris's hobbies. The best comic bits belong to Iris Adrian as Foch's roommate, a brassy hat check girl. The very handsome Cochran does a great job as the killer, and is about the only cast member who doesn't seem like he knows he's stuck in a B-movie. These movies aren't classics, but they're fun, and better than much of what passes for thrillers on TV these days. [TV]

Monday, June 19, 2006


This film begins with the trappings of a historical period piece, and indeed the title character really did live in 16th century Italy and was a goldsmith with ties to royalty. But it becomes clear very quickly that this isn't history at all, but an antic bedroom farce in which everyone gets to wear fabulous costumes and prance about on elaborate sets. As such, it works rather well, and the fact that it was released just before the restrictive Production Code went into effect allows it to sneak in some bawdy implications that would have been censored just months later. Fredric March plays goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, whose scandalous ways have him constantly hiding from the law, or from jealous husbands, or both. The Duke of Florence (Frank Morgan), a member of the powerful Medici family, is after his hide, but March manages to buy some time for two reasons: 1) he is completing a set of gold dishes for the Duke, and 2) the Duchess (Constance Bennett) takes a liking to him. The love triangle is turned into a rectangle by March's young and lovely model (Fay Wray), with whom March has been dallying and to whom Morgan takes a shine. There are many scenes of loving and fighting and escaping, and the highlight of the film is a traditional door-slamming bedroom sequence in which Bennett pushes March out on a balcony so Morgan won't find him, while at the same time, Morgan has pushed Wray out on the same balcony; of course, March and Wray run off together to what March calls his "mountain hideaway," but which is really a smelly old barn. Another complication is Louis Calhern, a member of the court who is out for March's blood, and he becomes a key player in the finale in which a poisoned cup of wine decides the fates of our assorted lovers. The action bogs down just a bit in the middle, though the movie wraps up too quickly. Otherwise, if you're in the mood for a rollicking 30's farce, this will do the trick. Also in the cast are Jessie Ralph as Wray's mother who has a goat-like beard which is good for a couple of jokes, and Vince Barnett as March's dopey sidekick. Lucille Ball has a bit part as a lady in waiting, but I didn't catch her. March, in tights and a goatee, is more handsome and dashing than I've ever seen him; Bennett's not bad at being haughty, but I didn't think she was always able to keep up with the farcical pace. Some viewers really don't like Morgan as the Duke, doing the same befuddled shtick he almost always does so he never disappears into his character, but subtlety of characterization is hardly the point here and I eventually warmed to him. [FMC]

Saturday, June 17, 2006


An early Robert Bresson film, quite unlike anything else of his that I've seen (DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, LANCELOT OF THE LAKE). It's a brittle, dark story of romance and revenge that for the most part seems quite contemporary, with a feel of something like DANGEROUS LIASONS. When rich Helene (Maria Casares) hints to her long-time lover Jean (Paul Bernard) that she has gotten bored with their relationship, she is shocked when he says that he has too, and suggests that they part, at least temporarily. Helene, furious, arranges for Jean to get interested in showgirl Agnes (Elina Labourdette), an old acquaintance from the country who has turned to an unsavory lifestyle (dancing for groups of men in her room, and worse, I'm sure!) to keep herself and her mother afloat. Helene arranges for Agnes and her mother to be secluded in a small and drab apartment (I assume so she will not be tempted back to her old profession) and then proceeds to engineer a meeting with Jean, pushing the two together by seeming to be keeping them apart. Jean is unaware of Agnes' background and the two go through a tentative courtship until he becomes obsessed with her and she finally agrees to marry him. At the wedding party, Helene strikes the final blow by telling Jean that Agnes is a whore. He is shocked, Agnes faints, and Helene drives away in triumph, but a fairly unrealistic "happy" ending which feels like it was tacked on drains the story of some of its power. Nevertheless, this is one you shouldn't miss, and the main reason is the performance of Maria Caseres, who is both icy cold and red hot as the vengeful woman on a mission to destroy two lives (three if you count Agnes's mother). The movie's look is stark and dark, though not really in a film noir fashion, although I can imagine this being done as a Hollywood melodrama in the same era with Joan Crawford tossing Zachary Scott to some slutty supporting starlet (Martha Vickers in THE BIG SLEEP, perhaps?). The only problem here is that what we see of Agnes's shady past consists mostly of vigorous dancing, and after she is "saved" by Helene, she reverts to some rural virgin type, so we have to fill in the gaps (as in a Hollywood movie of the same era) to figure out why she is so ashamed of herself. There's a scene in which Agnes dances around the small apartment like Ann Miller in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU which I guess is supposed to make us think that she is missing her chorus girl/hooker days, but it's an odd scene anyway. Otherwise, I highly recommend this. [DVD]

Thursday, June 15, 2006

RAFFLES (1939)

The title of this comic crime adventure refers to A.J. Raffles (David Niven), the creation of British writer E.W. Hornung. This was the fourth film based on his exploits and apparently it's a scene-by-scene remake of the 1930 version with Ronald Colman. Raffles is, to all appearances, a charming high society cricket player, but on the side, he is also a jewel thief known to Scotland Yard and the public as the Amateur Cracksman. It is implied that he's something of a Robin Hood when he sends one stolen necklace to an aging actress he admires so she can turn it in for a sizeable reward, but otherwise we don't get much information about his life, other than that he's widely admired for his athletic ability, and only his butler (E.E. Clive) knows about his double life. Niven meets Olivia de Havilland, the sister of his friend Bunny (Douglas Walton), and they hit it off, so much so that he decides to go straight and returns the last batch of jewels he stole (in a clever ruse involving a cute little stray kitten as a decoy). However, when he attends a country house party to be near de Havilland, he also decides to pull off one last job as a way of helping Walton out of a gambling debt. Unbeknownst to him, there is another burglar (Peter Godfrey) in the house who, with some help from the family maid, has an inside track on getting the jewels. A comedy of errors follows in which Godfrey snatches them, then Niven snatches them from Godfrey, and we're never sure who has what because there is also a fake set floating around. In the end, Niven gallantly gives himself up to the Scotland Yard inspector (Dudley Digges) so he'll have a clean slate to start from when he gets out of jail and marries de Havilland. In the pre-Code 1930 version, Raffles gets away scot free, and the Code-imposed ending does hurt the film's fluffy tone, but generally this works well thanks almost completely to the charming Niven, who is a perfect fit for the role. Dame May Whitty is fun in the small role of the woman who throws the house party. Nothing special, but pleasant enough. [TCM]

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Based on a trilogy of stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, this minor adventure/romance with a slightly dark edge (which would certainly be exploited more fully if it were made today) doesn't quite live up to its potential but is nevertheless a decent vehicle for its stars, Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. Montgomery is a frivolous playboy prince who is happy that his long-arranged marriage to a foreign princess has been canceled. We learn there are anarchists who have recently been ousted from the country but who may be in hiding and who are after the prince, so the king sends him to London on a vacation with army colonel Frank Morgan. On board, he is captivated by a mysterious lady (Russell) who says she's being pursued and asks for his help in smuggling some secrets off the ship; Montgomery is happy to help, but when they land, he finds that she has vanished and that the secrets are just a bundle of blank sheets of paper. Looking for a little diversion in town, he discovers the existence of a Suicide Club, where people who are tired of living pay stiff fees to be part of a nightly drawing of cards: one person is chosen to be the killer and one is chosen to be killed. The murder then occurs in the next 24 hours. Apparently thinking it would be a nice adventure, Montgomery joins up and sees Russell among the group. Eventually she is chosen to be his executioner and the plot takes a number of twists, some predictable, some not, on the way to a fairly exciting finale. At 75 minutes, it feels a bit rushed by the end; a little more time for the plot to play out would have allowed for better character development. Russell, an actor who was generally only as good as her material, is good here, as is her leading man. Reginald Owen, in a bald head cap and looking like the Scrooge he was for MGM a couple of years later, is fine as the villainous head of the Suicide Club, and Louis Hayward shines in a small but important role which is billed as "Young Man with Cream Tarts." There is a brief but amusing bit involving a dog on trial for murder. [TCM]

Saturday, June 10, 2006

SUEZ (1938)

This is a decent example of what passed for a historical epic in Hollywood before GONE WITH THE WIND changed the rules. It's a fictional biography of Ferdinand de Lesseps, engineer and builder of the Suez Canal (and who later was in on the beginnings of the Panama Canal, though that's not covered here). The film starts in 1850 in Paris with Tyrone Power as de Lesseps, the son of diplomat Henry Stephenson, leading a carefree life playing exhibition tennis and romancing Loretta Young, who herself is being admired from afar by Louis Napoleon (Leon Ames), the president of France (though because he is related to the tyrannical Bonaparte, the fear that Ames might shut down the government and claim himself Emperor becomes a plot point). When Power is called to Egypt by his father, he asks Young to marry him but she won't commit. Once in Egypt, he meets the somewhat tomboyish Annabella while she's skinny dipping; soon she has fallen in love with him, though he seems to think of her more as a little sister. After a storm, while admiring a rainbow, Power has the idea to build a canal that would connect the Red and Mediterranean Seas, and the rest of the film details his long struggle to bring the project to fruition, mostly involving jumping a number of political hurdles involving the French, the British, and the Arabs. At one point, Power finagles Ames into backing his plan by agreeing to get the Assembly to disband temporarily, but when Ames double-crosses Power and begins arresting the Assembly members, all of Power's friends think that Power has betrayed them for the Canal. The building of the Canal takes years, slowed by political reversals and deliberate sabotage, but the main set piece of the film is a spectacular dust storm in which Annabella sacrifices her life to save Power by tying him to a post as the wind blows virtually everything else away. After this sequence, the film rushes to an end with the eventual completion of the canal and a ceremony in which Power is given a medal by Young, now the wife of Ames. Apparently little of this is accurate, but the story is entertaining enough and Power makes a good leading man. J. Edward Bromberg plays an Arabian prince, Nigel Bruce does his usual befuddled persona as a pompous admirer of Young's, and other standouts of the large supporting cast include Joseph Schildkraut, Sig Ruman, and George Zucco. [FMC]

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


A big Hollywood epic which always looks wonderful but occasionally gets bogged down by overstuffed narrative and underwritten characters. Tom Tryon plays the title character; the film opens and closes with a middle-aged Tryon being made Cardinal in Rome just before the outbreak of WWII, with the rest of the movie consisting of chronologically-ordered flashbacks through his life. We see him in his first parish in his hometown of Boston until his cardinal (John Huston), thinking that Tryon is too ambitious, reassigns him to a rural town to work under ailing pastor Burgess Meredith. After proving his mettle, Tryon is hired as a secretary by Huston and eventually the two go to Rome where Huston wrangles a Vatican appointment for Tryon. However, Tryon is undergoing a crisis of faith and decides instead to take a leave of absence. After the intermission, we catch up with him as a teacher in Vienna who is briefly tempted by Romy Schneider, but instead his priestly calling is reinforced. He gets a Vatican job, travels back to the U.S. to help a black pastor (Ossie Davis) fight the Ku Klux Klan, then upon his return to Vienna, he tries to motivate the local cardinal (Josef Meinrad) to stand up against the Nazis. The episodic nature of the story isn't automatically a bad thing, but the real problem is that the episodes are underdeveloped and we rarely see evidence of how Tryon learns his various lessons. The midpoint crisis is especially murky, as is its resolution. His earliest and most concrete crisis, and the one that sticks with him the longest, involves his sister (Carol Lynley) who wants to marry her Jewish boyfriend (John Saxon). At first, Saxon agrees to convert to Catholicism, but then backs out. Lynley confesses (literally, in the confessional) to Tryon that she's slept with her boyfriend and after Tryon refuses to give her the advice she wants to hear, Saxon goes to war and Lynley winds up doing an vaudeville tango act with a slimy guy who gets her pregnant and offers to pay for an abortion. She chooses to have the child, but complications lead to her doctor suggesting she have a partial-birth abortion to save her own life. Tryon won't give his permission for the procedure, so Lynley dies (though the baby grows up to be raised by her parents--and when we see her briefly as a grown-up, she's played by Lynley). This becomes a sore point for Tryon, who feels responsible for her death, and this seems to be the reason for his crisis of faith, but it's never that clear.

Tryon's performance is often knocked as too wooden, but I think the problem is more in the writing. Like Tyrone Power in THE RAZOR'S EDGE, Tryon is mostly a passive center in the whirlwind of personal events and history surrounding him. Though he's on screen almost constantly, we never really feel like we know him. We also rarely see him use his priestly skills, so the reasons for his rapid rise through the church hierarchy are beyond us. Meredith gets praise from the critics, but he has very little to do but lie in bed and die--for a while, I thought Tryon might borrow a trick from Bing Crosby in GOING MY WAY and cure Burgess with a glass of whiskey and an Irish lullaby. Supporting standouts include Murray Hamilton as a Klan member who has a change of heart, Raf Vallone as a Vatican good guy, Cecil Kellaway as Tryon's first monsignor, and Maggie McNamera and Bill Hayes as Tryon's other siblings. Poor Robert Morse has a ridiculous vaudeville number thrown in for no clear purpose. The movie is beautifully shot by Leon Shamroy and the location settings are used effectively. The last half of the movie, particularly the Nazi segment, does have some power and momentum, but at three hours, it's not a movie for an impatient audience. [DVD]

Monday, June 05, 2006


I've seen most of the Hollywood movies that have entered the canon of Classic Movies, but this is one that other classic movie buffs are always surprised to learn I haven't seen. I didn't actively avoid it, but I never felt compelled to search it out, despite it being the main claim to fame for Judy Holliday, who has become a near-legend largely on the basis of this one film (and her untimely death of cancer at 43 after having starring roles in only seven movies). As Billie Dawn, the mistress of a rich but crude businessman (Broderick Crawford, who plays the role as though he was a gangster who accidentally wound up with in a legitimate business), Holliday epitomized the indelible "dumb blonde" stereotype that permeates popular culture--she certainly got there before Marilyn Monroe, and Jean Hagen is practically channeling Holliday in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Crawford is in Washington to do some under-the-counter wheeling and dealing; both he and Holliday are loud, obnoxious, and on the dumb side, but Crawford only sees those faults in Holliday, so he hires a reporter (William Holden) to "make a lady" out of her. Holden embarks on a mission to refine and educate Holliday and ends up showing her that she deserves better than Crawford; along the way he falls in love with her. She catches on quickly and reciprocates Holden's affections, and the two end up giving a bit of an education to Crawford. The film is based on a hit play and it does feel stagy, with very little of the action taking place outside of Crawford's hotel suite except for a couple of brief shots of Holden squiring Holliday around Washington tourist attractions. The acting all around is good, and I was especially impressed with Howard St. John as Crawford's lawyer, who doesn't like Crawford or the underhanded deals he gets involved in, but realizes it's too late for him to get out of his profession. The plot makes an interesting and explicit parallel between political and personal fascism, but it could stand some more development. Holden and Holliday, though both fine in their roles, don't really have a lot of chemistry as a romantic pair, and I can't imagine their characters staying together much past the final fadeout. [TCM]

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Intermittently interesting B-melodrama which on the surface resembles Barbara Stanwyck's earlier THE MIRACLE WOMAN. The plot of this one actually has more potential, but the low budget and limited resources of the actors don't allow it to come to fruition. Sally Eilers stars as a chorus girl working as a hostess in a gambling club; we see her scamming boozing businessman Cecil Kellaway so he'll keep buying drinks and spending money at the tables. She also seems to be involved with the gangsterish club owner (Robert Gleckler), though the extent of her involvement is unclear. Lee Bowman is the rich man she left at the altar (we find out later that she did in at the request of Bowman's father); he's taken to drinking to forget the hurt. Ann Miller is Eilers' buddy, a singer at the club; Paul Guilfoyle, a bouncer, is Miller's boyfriend. When the club gets raided, Eilers, Miller, and Guilfoyle look for other jobs but are blacklisted by the law (Jonathan Hale is the obsessed cop who seems to spend all his time dogging them from city to city; rejected suitor Bowman also follows her around). The trio wind up partaking of free coffee and donuts at a Salvation Army-style storefront, and Eilers gets the bright idea of becoming a faith-healing evangelist, using planted fake cripples in the audience to cure. She's very successful and when Hale threatens to blow their cover, she admits to her sordid past, which gets her more publicity and makes her even more successful. Eilers gets on the good side of rich widow Alma Kruger who wants her to take over the running of a children's charity hospital, and Eilers is suddenly torn between doing good and keeping up the scam. The finale involves a attempted theft of Kruger's jewels, and a real cripple who finds himself cured by Eilers, making her question her entire situation. Eilers, who played mostly supporting roles in the mid-1930's, is good here, particularly when she adopts her husky-voiced evangelist persona. Miller and Guilfoyle provide strong support, but Bowman is saddled with a nothing role and he can't do much with it. Miller, in the days before she became an MGM musicals regular, gets one song and dance number, "It's the Doctor's Orders," which is unmemorable except when it rhymes "coma" with "diploma." [TCM]