Sunday, July 30, 2006

SKY GIANT (1938)

This is an RKO B-movie version of the kind of aviation male-buddy movie that Warners and MGM did better, so instead of actors like James Cagney or Spencer Tracy, we have fading silent star Richard Dix and B stalwart Chester Morris. The flying footage, like the stars, is passable but not terribly exciting, and the plot is strictly routine. Harry Carey is a crusty old retired army colonel who starts a flight school for commercial pilots and runs it in strict military fashion. Dix, who had been a captain under Carey, is railroaded into working for him and, though there is some tension between the two, there is also respect. Morris is Carey's cocky son, a former diplomat, who comes to the school not knowing that his father is in charge. Of course, Dix and Morris become friendly antagonists, first in the air, and then in competing for the attentions of Joan Fontaine, the cousin of another pilot (Paul Guilfoyle). Fontaine settles on Morris, assuming he'll give up flying, but when he winds up joining Dix and Guilfoyle on a project to map Arctic flight routes, she breaks it off and accepts Dix, on the condition that he make this his last air job. They get a marriage license, but on the test flight, the men crash land over the Yukon. Guilfoyle winds up with two broken legs and wants Dix and Morris to leave him behind. When they refuse, Guilfoyle crawls out at night into the elements to sacrifice himself so Dix and Morris can make it more quickly to safety. In the end, they still have to sort out the romantic triangle, and though there is a traditional resolution, the last shot seems to suggest the uneasy threeway relationship may continue. Fontaine doesn't have a lot to do, but she's lovely (and quite young, only 21, in comparison to Morris's 37 and Dix's 45, though I have to say that neither man looks quite as old as he really was so the triangle isn't too creepy). The pilot school is identified as TWA's, an interesting bit of early product placement, perhaps. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


I don't like Lee Tracy. In fact, I avoid Lee Tracy movies. Part of it, I admit, is the kind of role that he specialized in, the snarky, wisecracking smartass who rubs everyone the wrong way. I think audiences were supposed to like Tracy's characters either because of or in spite of his personality, but I guess he succeeds too well because I can't stand him. I watched this movie because of my interest in WWII propaganda films and found Tracy to be a little toned down here, maybe because of his age (nearing 50). He doesn't hurt the movie, but his relatively low-key performance also doesn't help it much. The film begins with real-life journalist Drew Pearson assuring us that what we are going to see is based on truth (even though the credits call the book the film was based on a novel). The narrative is set in the weeks before America entered the war. There's a short sequence in which an American diplomat (Louis Jean Heydt) and a news bureau chief (Jason Robards Sr.) are both bumped off for knowing too much about a ring of Japanese spies operating along the West Coast, then the story focuses on Tracy, an aging, disgruntled carnival barker who is approached by an old acquaintance (Philip Ahn) to do some work in Panama. It turns out that Ahn, a member of a Japanese spy ring who believes that ex-soldier Tracy still has contacts in Panama, is trying to recruit Tracy to get hold of defense plans for the Panama Canal. A suspicious Tracy contacts Army Intelligence and he becomes a counterspy, who will pass along false information in order to capture the ring. Complicating matters is Nancy Kelly, an aspiring fashion designer who turns out to be an Army spy out to keep an eye on Tracy. When she is killed in a car accident before Tracy's eyes halfway though the movie, it doesn't take a genius to know that she's not really dead and will return soon enough, which she does, having cozied up to a big shot Nazi (Roland Varno) who is in league with Ahn's spies. Most of the good guys wind up sacrificing themselves for the cause, but the big shots in the spy ring also wind up dead. The most startling scene is the torture of Kelly in an overheated steam room. Other cast members include Regis Toomey as a solider who pretends to give Tracy the Canal plans, and Richard Loo (who later played Master Sun on the "Kung Fu" TV show) as the leader of the Japanese spies. The B-production values show through a bit too much at times, and according to sources I've read, the kind of sprawling West Coast spy ring posited in this film simply didn't exist, but that doesn't stop the film from being an acceptable wartime spy thriller. [TCM]

Saturday, July 22, 2006


A solid pre-Code melodrama, and a 30's version of an "indie" film made by the small-scale Reliance Pictures. I'm not sure what Claudette Colbert is doing here, given that she was in the middle of becoming a big star at mainstream Paramount, but she's very good, mostly making up for the shortcomings of her leading man, Ben Lyon, who plays the "I" of the title, a reporter who is trying to prove that grizzled old fisherman Ernest Torrence is the brains behind a ring of men who are smuggling desperate Chinese immigrants into the U.S. We know that Torrence is indeed the chief bad guy, and we see him callously dump a tied-up Chinese man overboard when a Coast Guard ship heads over to investigate. When Lyon sees the lovely Colbert skinny-dipping, he thinks she's just another quickie novelty headline, but when he finds out she's Torrence's daughter, he decides to cultivate a friendship with her in order to dig up some incriminating dirt, but then he finds himself falling for her. There's a bizarre seduction scene set in a prison ship museum in which Lyon straps Colbert into an arcane torture device and kisses her. There's also a shark hunting scene that wouldn't seem out of place in JAWS, and another scene with smuggled immigrants tumbling out of a dead shark's belly that is startling. The climactic action plays out well, though the very end feels rushed. Lots of little racy pre-Code touches add pizzazz; in addition to Colbert's dip in the ocean, there's a nudie girl painting in the boat, and Colbert and Lyon talk openly about moving in together. Torrence is very good as the villain, who is nevertheless a caring father. Lyon is the only weak link, and he's not really bad, just out of his league opposite Colbert. [DVD]

Thursday, July 20, 2006


I enjoyed this predictable soap opera for the chance to see two supporting players of the 30's whose careers petered out by the end of the decade: Eric Linden and Gwili Andre. The stars of this undistinguished, melodramatic twaddle are Charles Bickford and Irene Dunne. He is a hard-working but unambitious and uncouth steelworker who is happy bringing home just enough money to live on; she is his wife who runs a boarding house and has dreams of making it big, or more precisely, of her husband making it big. When a boarder (Eric Linden) who likes to mess around with chemistry comes up a new dye formula, Dunne sees its potential and talks Bickford into investing their life savings in a company designed to exploit the new discovery. The one surprise in the plot happens here: I was sure that Bickford would lose his shirt and resent Dunne and Linden, discover they're having an affair, and maybe even plot to kill them, but instead, the company becomes a wild success, and Linden and Dunne remain platonic friends. Bickford winds up buying out a competing company and building a huge industrial complex. In addition to taking on the nice manners of the upper classes, he also takes on their morality and has a torrid affair with big city sexpot Gwili Andre. Dunne catches him and Andre insists that he divorce Dunne to marry her. He tries to, but Dunne fights it, so he bribes a host of family friends and workers to testify that Dunne is an adulteress so he can get his divorce and get custody of their child. The climax is a nasty courtroom battle in which Dunne calls Bickford's bluff in a dramatic fashion.

Dunne is fine, but Bickford is colorless, even when he gets a potentially juicy drunk scene early in the film. Linden's character is ill-defined; I thought in the beginning that he was Bickford's kid brother, but he's not. Maybe he winds up gay, or a chemistry geek, or both. A character (Lelia Bennett) who helps out at Dunne's boarding house seems downright mentally handicapped, but there's no clear sign that this is an intended interpretation. The biggest problem in terms of plot is the lawyer, played by J. Carroll Naish; apparently, he was Andre's lover before Bickford came along, and perhaps after as well, though that is not make clear. He's the one who represents Bickford in court, but to no apparent larger purpose. The movie is not quite an hour long, and perhaps some of these plot points were left on the cutting room floor (perhaps by producer David O. Selznick back in his early RKO days). It's not a terrible movie, but it could have been better with sharper writing and someone like Joel McCrea in the male lead. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

THE FAN (1949)

Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" is the basis for this amusing comedy of manners. I haven't seen or read the play, and predictably most critics don't like the liberties the movie takes with the original material, but on its own merits, I found this to be a pleasant enough diversion. The frame story, set in post-WWII London, has the ancient Mrs. Erlynne (Madeleine Carroll) claiming to be the owner of an fan being sold at an auction; she contacts her old friend Lord Darlington (George Sanders) so he can prove her identity, but his memory needs some prodding, so the rest of the film is a series of flashbacks to a time when Carroll, a middle-aged "adventuress," as she calls herself, is rebuilding her life (for reasons which remain hidden from us until much later in the film) and attempting to make a place for herself in London high society. She charms a trio of moneyed men (Sanders, John Sutton, and the young and handsome Richard Greene) and sets out to marry the boring but rich Lord Augustus (Hugh Dempster). Lord Windermere (Greene) helps her out socially and financially, and rumors of an affair between the two eventually reach Lady Windermere (Jeanne Crain) thanks to gossipy duchess Martita Hunt. It turns out that Greene has good reasons for helping her out, though the secret is a good one so I won't give it away here. Suffice to say that things climax in a semi-farcical drawing room scene of mistaken identity (and mistaken intentions), and though the movie is a comedy, there is a mood of sad resignation in the way matters ultimately play out. Widean one-liners abound--at least I assume that most of them are drawn from Wilde, even though famed wit Dorothy Parker had a hand in the screenplay. One of my favorites here has Dempster saying, "Sometimes I think I'm married to Mrs. Erlynne, she treats me with such damned indifference!" All the actors are fine, especially Sanders and Hunt, and the relatively lightweight Greene and Crain hold their own nicely. Richard Ney (the soldier son in Mrs. Miniver) and Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim in the 1938 Christmas Carol) make brief appearances. Wilde purists may quibble (as Noel Coward purists rightfully complain about the bowdlerization of most of his works by Hollywood), but I thought the film was fun. [FMC]

Saturday, July 15, 2006

OPEN CITY (1945)

This film by Roberto Rossellini is perhaps the earliest example of Neorealism in film, using a documentary style to tell a fictional story, often about ordinary citizens and sometimes using non-professional actors. Filmed on the streets of Rome not long after the liberation of the city from the Germans, the narrative follows a loosely-knit group of resistance fighters during the height of the war. The stage is set with images of starving people buying food on the black market and breaking into shops. The main character is engineer Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who is being chased down by Nazis; he leaves his apartment building and goes to his friend Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who lives next door to his finacee Pina (Anna Magnani), a war widow with one child and another on the way. She fetches the priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who agrees to help Manfredi smuggle money to other resistance fighters. Unfortunately, Manfredi also contacts his lover, Marina (Maria Michi), an aspiring actress (who is also, if I'm reading things correctly, a bisexual and a dope addict) who later, in a fit of anger, informs on Manfredi to icy blond Nazi Ingrid (Giovanna Galetti). On the day of his wedding, Francesco is rounded up by the Gestapo. He eventually escapes, but not before Pina is shot and killed running after him.

Manfredi is captured and tortured by the cruel (and somewhat femme) Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), and it turns out that Manfredi has a secret past: he was an escaped Communist prisoner who had been hiding in plain sight for years. Bergmann is especially anxious to make Manfredi talk because his theory is that the Italians are a slave race and therefore their will should be easy to break, but Manfredi, as most of the captured patriots, is not so easy to crack. A more interesting bad guy is Captain Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen), a self-hating Nazi who thinks that the Germans are sowing death and hatred, and holds out no hope for a bright future for anyone. As you can probably tell, it's not a spoiler to say that almost all the major resistance fighters meet unhappy ends, although the last shot of the film can be interpreted as a hopeful one: a group of children we have seen pulling off minor resistance vandalism throughout the film witness the death of the priest by firing squad, and they walk away, not in resignation but in what seems more like dogged determination to continue their efforts. The acting all around, by pros and amateurs, is solid, with Magnani and Fabrizi standouts. The "realistic" filming style adds immeasurably to the gritty atmosphere of the film, though that style is much more common now. The version I saw on cable clearly wasn't "restored," and there were large chunks of dialogue that went untranslated. This film cries out for a fully loaded Criterion edition. (Sundance)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


I end my week of George Arliss films with this somewhat routine period picture that Arliss makes worth catching. I know little about the period or the personalities involved, but that didn't hamper my ability to follow a narrative that was certainly highly fictionalized. In 17th century France, King Louis XIII (Edward Arnold) is butting heads with the feudal lords of France over the consolidation of royal power. Arliss is Richelieu, chief minister of the King's Royal Council (apparently a forerunner to the modern post of Prime Minister), and he gets a good entrance scene: the Queen (Katharine Alexander), certain that Richelieu is far away, locks herself in the King's chamber and tries to convince him that the Cardinal is hungry for power and property and should be dismissed; Richelieu arrives and, despite being barred from the main entrance, uses a secret passageway into the chamber and spoils the Queen's plan. The rest of the film concerns various cat-and-mouse games between the Cardinal and the Queen, the Cardinal and the nobility, the Cardinal and the Pope (who is angry that Richelieu has drafted Protestant soldiers from Sweden to fight against German Catholics), and even the Cardinal and the King. One of the things I ended up liking about the movie is that I was never quite certain who the "good guy" was supposed to be. We are trained by the movies (not to mention by our history) to treat most royals with suspicion, and Arnold plays the king as pompous (though not stupid or evil), but Richelieu, with his army, his lavish personal palace, and the kickbacks he gets from some of the nobles, does not seem to be much more sympathetic. However, Arliss gives a grand performance, especially in a famous scene in which he melodramatically claims the sanctuary of the Church against attackers. There is a light romantic subplot that feels a little out of place involving a ward of the Cardinal's (Maureen O'Sullivan) and one of the angry Lords (Cesar Romero), but it does give Richelieu a more human touch. Douglass Dumbrille plays a chief conspirator, and John Carradine and Arthur Treacher have one-line bits as street agitators. Some fun intrigue between the Cardinal and the King ends the film nicely, but the main reason for seeking this out is to see Arliss. [FMC]

Monday, July 10, 2006


Another delightful George Arliss picture, like A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY, in which he plays a sort of "foxy grandpa" type, a gruff-seeming older man who has charm and prankish energy beneath his facade, who usually winds up teaching some young whippersnappers a lesson. In this one, he's the founder of Reeves Shoes, the country's leading shoe company. He is particularly proud of staying ahead of his chief competitor, Hartland Shoes, run by an old friend of his who married the woman that they both loved. Arliss's company is in such good shape that his nephew (Hardie Albright) tries to talk Arliss into retiring and living out the rest of his days fishing in Maine. When Hartland dies and his company falls into the hands of his fast-living son and daughter (Theodore Newton and Bette Davis), who are on the verge of running the company into bankruptcy, Arliss decides to go undercover and try to save the company, out of a sense of loyalty to Hartland and his kids. He puts in a secret bid to buy the company, works his way in as a trustee, and (rather improbably) is also named a quasi-legal guardian to Newton and Davis. In the beginning they like Arliss because he seems easygoing and harmless, but he quickly lays down the laws, cutting out their hard partying and their unrestrained spending, and soon he has them working hard to turn the company around, despite the machinations of the crooked manager (Gordon Westcott). In fact, Davis decides to do some undercover work of her own and, under an assumed name, gets a job at Reeves Shoes in order to learn some skills she can bring back to Hartland. A romance develops between Davis and Albright, which is threatened when Arliss fires Westcott and he comes to Albright to get a job and recognizes Davis. Being a comedy, there are happy endings all around for all who deserve them, though the climax plays out in a hurry. Arliss is great fun in a role he could probably have done in his sleep. Davis is OK, though Albright as an uptight blond boy, and Newton as a mellow blond boy, are a little too low-energy. Westcott makes a fine and slimy villain, J. Farrell MacDonald has a nice scene or two as Arliss' fishing buddy, and Edward Van Sloan shows up as Arliss's assistant. Quite fun all around. [TCM]

Saturday, July 08, 2006


A fine old-fashioned (and here I mean that in the best possible way) melodrama which gave Bette Davis her first substantial lead, with George Arliss, who would become her mentor. He plays a renowned concert pianist at the peak of his career who feels his life is ruined when he goes deaf; it's explained that deafness runs in his family, but it seems to come on all at once when an anarchist's bomb explodes right outside his window while he's playing the "Moonlight Sonata" for a European king (whom the anarchists are chasing--don't ask, it's just a creaky plot device). After months of feeling sorry for himself (and keeping most of his friends at a distance) because the joy of his piano has been taken away from him, he is finally persuaded to learn to read lips. He discovers that, with the help of a pair of binoculars, he can read the lips of passers-by outside his window who stroll through Central Park and he takes to "playing God" with them, secretly sending financial help to people who need it. Davis plays a much younger woman, a close friend of Arliss' who was infatuated with him and proposed to him before his deafness occurred. Though she still loves him and seems more than willing to go through with the planned marriage, she has fallen in love with Donald Cook, a man much closer to her own age. By coincidence (!!!), Davis and Cook discuss their situation in the park. Guess who eavesdrops? Guess who winds up stepping gracefully out of the picture so Davis can be happy? Arliss was 65, playing a 50-year-old, and the makeup to make him look younger than his years is obvious, but aside from that, he is quite fine in a part that calls for some over-the-top emoting from time to time. His best scene is when he rages against God for taking away his life's joy, the ability to hear music. Davis is good, although Ivan Simpson, who plays Arliss' stiff but faithful butler, steals most of his scenes; he is especially good when he saves Arliss from an attempted suicide. Cook is the first of a series of actors throughout the next several years who appear opposite Davis and who wind up wiped off the screen, or at best, come off as mannequins (see also George Brent, Richard Barthelmess, Franchot Tone, and Paul Henried). Louise Closser Hale is fine as Arliss' sister and secretary, as is Violet Heming as another admirer of Arliss'. Hedda Hopper and Ray Milland have small roles. Solid melodrama that is a little dated but nonetheless still worth seeing. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


George Arliss seems to have had two primary movie modes: serious historical figure and sly old father (and even his serious roles had a bit of the sly dad in them). This is a delightful comedy with Arliss as the second type; it's a lighter-than-air role, a little like the one he played in THE MILLIONAIRE but even fluffier. He's a rich banker who returns from a year-long stint in Europe, anxious to be fussed over by his loving family. The problem is that they seem to have gotten along quite well without him. His wife (Mary Astor) has completely redone his old and comfortable sitting room in blinding art nouveau and she's so booked up with social obligations, she barely has any time to spend with him. His frivolous children (William Janney and Evalyn Knapp) obviously have affection for their dad, but also have little time for him: idle Janney is always on the polo field and Knapp is preoccupied with her upcoming marriage to clueless fussy pinhead Hardie Albright. To simplify his family life, Arliss pretends that the family fortune has come to ruin, hoping that they'll all have to spend time together (inspired by his butler's remark that "the poor don't get to go out very often"). His plan works; not only do they start spending evenings together, but Janney gets a job and Knapp dumps Albright for hunky polo-player Randolph Scott. Only Astor causes concern when she seems to run out on Arliss with her Italian piano prodigy Fortunio Bonanova, but things aren't always what they seem and a happy ending is in store for all. The most amazing thing about this movie is the comic timing, which seems almost contemporary. I think of Arliss even at the top of his game as a somewhat stagy, old-fashioned actor, but he seems quite modern here, while still having the gravity necessary for the role. Astor, as usual, is good, and Grant Mitchell gets to shine as Arliss's butler; in a nice bit, Arliss winds up spending his free time in his butler's room in his old comfy chair, which Mitchell rescued when Astor threw it in the trash. There's a nice subplot involving a double-crossing businessman (David Torrence) to whom Arliss manages to put the screws. Leon Ames has a small role as an assistant to Arliss. Good fun all around. [TCM]

Saturday, July 01, 2006


One reason to love the current era of classic movies on cable: the chance to see the work of actors who were well known and well liked in their era but whose popularity hasn't extended to the present day. This week, I'm going to devote some blog posts to the films of George Arliss, a British stage actor who had a short but successful film career in the 1930's. His main claim to fame was playing historical figures--he won one of the first Best Actor Oscars back in 1930 for DISRAELI, a movie I haven't been able to see yet. Arliss' films are unlikely to wind up released in DVD boxed sets, like the movies of Bogart or Astaire or Bette Davis, but they do show up occasionally on Turner Classic and Fox Movie Channel. Leonard Maltin says that Arliss is a fine actor "in sore need of rediscovery," and I agree. In the past, I've reviewed THE MILLIONAIRE and THE GREEN GODDESS, both good movies, and this week, I'll review a few more I've been lucky enough to see.

In this historical family story, Arliss plays the dual role of Mayer Rothschild, founder in the 1790's of the famous banking house, and Nathan, his son. Though much of the narrative is concerned with the pervasive anti-Semitism of the time and place, the movie also traffics in some unfortunate Jewish stereotypes which may undercut that theme with today's viewers. In the short, atmospheric opening section of the film, we see Meyer, a coin dealer and money lender living in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, hiding caches of money from the tax collector. He tells his children that, because money lending is one of the only occupations open to Jews, money is the only defense against the combative Gentile society (the Jews are forced to live on one street and are locked in their homes at night). He starts his sons in banking and tells them to spread out to various cities to stop the loss of money transfers through war and banditry. Thirty years later, the story is picked up with Arliss as Nathan, the eldest son, who is established in London and makes important loans to the British and their allies in their wars against Napoleon. After Wellington (C. Aubrey Smith) defeats Napoleon, Arliss suggests loaning money to France to rebuild. His suggestion is approved, but his bid for making the loan is rejected due to the anti-Semitic Count Ledrantz (Boris Karloff, miles away from his Frankenstein monster and quite good as the outwardly civilized villain). Arliss gets his revenge by driving down the price of the bonds, and he finally gets the bid, but Karloff gets his own revenge by inciting a series of pogroms in Prussia. When Napoleon escapes from exile, the advantage goes back to Arliss when the allies need his money again. Despite an offer from Napoleon asking for money in exchange for freedom for the Jews, Arliss goes with the allies and the film ends with the defeats of both Napoleon and Karloff. Despite the historical sweep of the narrative, the film is fairly stagy with lots of talky scenes (we see no war action and never meet Napoleon), though thanks to good acting and pacing, it rarely feels static. There is a more or less unnecessary romantic subplot with Arliss' daughter, Loretta Young, in love with a Gentile soldier (Robert Young). The two Youngs are bland and unwelcome as they take screen time away from Karloff and the wonderful Arliss. Also notable are Helen Westley (as Meyer's wife), Reginald Owen, and Arthur Byron. Arliss' real-life wife Florence plays Nathan's wife, though she doesn't have much to do. The film plays fast and loose with history, but that's a given with Hollywood. Quite enjoyable, and Arliss commands the screen as usual. [FMC]