Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Awkward adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a romance between two Navajo Indians. It's not so much a problem of "political correctness" that makes the movie hard to watch, but a weak script and plain old bad acting. Ramon Novarro (as the title character) is excited to be attending his first Great Sing Dance. He's clearly meant to be a youthful innocent, but he's not dumb, as we see in the movie's best scene which involves him dealing with a couple of pushy tourists from Cleveland. He meets up with Slim Girl (Lupe Valez), a Navajo who was raised and schooled by whites and now uses the name Lily. She's a bit of a slut (mostly with white men--the Navajo men won't touch her), and she comes on strong with naive Novarro. He knows she has a bad reputation, but he says she's just "different" and decides rather quickly that they need to get married before they have sex. She has other ideas and seduces him with whisky to get him into the sack (in the great outdoors). The next morning, apparently mortified at his behavior, he has run off, so Velez goes back to her brutal white lover (William B. Davidson). Time passes and they meet again; this time they marry, but she proves no good at doing "women's work" and the two aren't very happy so back she goes to Davidson. Novarro goes after them with a bow and arrow, and tragedy ensues. Much of the supporting cast is made up of Native Americans, but the star-crossed couple is played by Mexican actors Novarro and Velez; they don't feel out of place, but they seem to be overacting while the rest of the largely non-professional cast are barely acting at all, and the clash of styles is occasionally excruciating. [TCM]

Sunday, August 27, 2006


I haven't seen many King Arthur movies; offhand I can only recall EXCALIBUR, LANCELOT OF THE LAKE, and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. This one, from early in the widescreen era, seems to have inspired at least a couple of moments of satire in the Python film. It suffers today from some slow stretches, but it is colorful with good sets and costumes and a couple of fine swashbuckling scenes (though it certainly is nowhere near Errol Flynn's ROBIN HOOD for total adventure enjoyment). It also might be one of the first comic book movies, based as it is on a long-running comic strip created by Hal Foster which began in 1937 and is still running in many Sunday papers today. A very youthful Robert Wagner plays Valiant, a Christian Viking prince who, as the film opens, is in exile at an isolated abbey in England with his family, including his father, the rightful king of Scandia, hiding from the pagan King Sligon. Loyal Viking warrior Boltar (Victor McLaglen) warns the family that a traitor may have let Sligon and his troops know where they are hiding, so Valiant heads to Camelot to become a knight in order to gain the experience needed to take his father back to Scandia to reclaim his throne. On his way, he has a run-in with the Black Knight, who is in the process of massing Viking troops on his side for some wickedness. After King Arthur (Brian Aherne) and the Knights of the Round Table agree to help Valiant, he is mentored by Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden) and also catches the eye of Sir Brack (James Mason), Arthur's bastard brother, who may know more about the Black Knight than he's telling. The lovely Princess Aleta (Janet Leigh) falls for Valiant, and her sister (Debra Paget) falls for Gawain, but Gawain gets the signals crossed, which provides a little romantic tension before Valiant's father is kidnapped, the Black Knight is unmasked, battles are fought, and buckles are swashed. The climactic swordfight between Valiant and the Black Knight is well done. Wagner looks a little silly at first in his page boy hairdo, but it grows on you, and otherwise, he's good in a role that mostly just calls for youth and energy. Hayden is a little wooden in his line readings, but Mason and Leigh are fine. [FMC]

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


A bit of a rant first: In the last few days, I saw two recent movies that I despised: A SCANNER DARKLY and THE BROTHERS GRIMM. Both were decently-budgeted fantasy/sf films with talented people in front of and behind the camera, and lots of attention to style, but seemingly no attention to telling a good story. I can appreciate movies with elliptical narratives (2001, L'AVVENTURA), but SCANNER and GRIMM present themselves as fairly traditional narrative-driven films, and they utterly fail to tell their stories coherently or otherwise give audience members any reason to stick around once the stylistic shenanigans have gotten old, which for me was about 45 minutes in for both films. I got much more pleasure out of this minor Warners B-film with a hackneyed, time-worn plot but with strong performances, solid production values, and a satisfying narrative.

The plot is a variation on the good brother/bad brother theme which so many movies of the classic era used. The film focuses on Mrs. Lorenzo (Marjorie Rambeau), owner of an Italian restaurant called Mama Ravioli's, and her two sons. John Garfield, her blood son, does poorly in school and winds up in prison in California, though he tells his mom he's working on a ranch and he makes sure that he can keep funneling money to mama with some help from his hard-as-nails gal, Brenda Marshall. Blond-haired William Lundigan, whom Rambaeu adopted when he was a homeless lad, is a hard worker and graduates from college with honors. Garfield gets out of prison just in time to come home for Nick's graduation. He passes Marshall off as his finacee and at first, she gives everyone the cold shoulder, but soon Rambeau and Lundigan thaw her out and she winds up helping out in the kitchen. Garfield finds the two rats who set him up to take the fall back in California and he sets them up to be caught during a robbery. One kills a cop, is arrested, and sentenced to death; the other (Douglas Fowley) escapes and vows to get Garfield, who takes it on the lam to Mexico. In the meantime, Marshall starts hanging out with Lundigan and one thing leads to another until they're engaged and set a wedding date. When Garfield rather improbably hears about it, he comes back determined to expose Marshall's sordid past. For the good of the family, Marshall agrees, on the eve of the wedding, to leave, which breaks Lundigan's heart. It turns out that Rambeau had long ago figured out that Garfield was a common crook, and she has a great scene in which she denounces him to his face, saying she should have killed him when he was a child. This gets to Garfield, who is moved to find a way to square things, even if it means risking getting gunned down by Fowley. Garfield and Marshall are great; Lundigan, whom I like a great deal, doesn't really have much to do besides react rather passively to what happens around him. Rambeau wildly overdoes her Italian mama bit, as does George Tobias as her Italian co-worker, but I enjoyed her anyway, and her disowning scene with Garfield is riveting. Frank Faylen and Paul Guilfoyle have small supporting roles. Garfield kisses his mom on the mouth a few too many times for comfort, but the film doesn't have time to explore any psychological depths. I don't mean to make any great claims for this average B-melodrama, but by gosh, for what it was, I enjoyed it, and had lots more fun with it than with the bloated and self-important epics of '06 that I saw the same week. [TCM]

Monday, August 21, 2006


An average crime melodrama from MGM, the middle portion of which comes off like a B-movie remake of I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Edward G. Robinson has a small but thriving business fighting oil-well fires; the opening segment showing him and his assistant (Guinn Williams) on the scene of a particularly dangerous fire is just about the best part of the movie. One day, out of the blue, a shadowy figure from Robinson's past (Gene Lockhart) shows up. He knows that years ago, Robinson, wrongly accused of embezzlement, escaped from a chain gang, and he tries to blackmail him to keep his secret. (And as if that's not enough villainy, we come to find out that Lockhart was responsible for the crime of which Robinson was accused.) After various maneuvers and double-crosses, Robinson is sent back to the chain gang and Lockhart winds up with Robinson's lucrative business. When Robinson finds out, he escapes yet again and has a final confrontation with Lockhart. Robinson, as always, is good, but Lockhart, in an unusual bad guy role as the slimy blackmailer, is the reason to watch the picture; it's fun to watch him shift personalities depending on how he thinks he can best get sympathy. Ruth Hussey has the relatively thankless role of Robinson's wife, and child actor Bobs Watson works up a few tears now and then as their son. The chain gang scenes in the middle bog the proceedings down a bit, but the opening and closing are exciting. [TCM]

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Both of these movies are on a disc from Image called "Our Daily Bread and Other Films of the Great Depression." The first is a Depression-era propaganda film which makes a case for a kind of back-to-the-earth socialism as an answer to the woes of underemployed city folk. Supposedly, this was intended as a sequel to King Vidor's silent classic THE CROWD and it begins with the same young married couple, John and Mary Sims, from that film, though played here by different actors (Tom Keene and Karen Morley). In the big city, owing rent but holding no jobs, they hit up Morley's uncle for a loan which he, due to the stock market crash, is unable to give them, but he does offer them use of an old farm which he owns. Despite having no farming experience, they move out there (where there is plenty of farm equipment but no furniture) and are lucky enough to cross paths with a Swede (John Qualen) whose car breaks down in front their property. Keene hires him to work the land, then gets the idea to set up a co-op farm, putting up signs looking for people who will be willing to live on the land, help out with the farming, and share in the take. Some of the men who show up have experience with their hands, but they even accept a violinist and an undertaker into the group and for a while, things go well. When, unexpectedly, the land is put up for public auction, the farmers intimidate folks into not bidding, then bid $1.85, which by law has to be accepted, and buy the land for themselves--a trick which was actually used by farmers in the Plains. There is great joy when the crops begin to come up, but of course, other problems ensue, some personal (a wild city woman, Barbara Pepper, tempts Keene into an affair and almost gets him to leave the farm) and some natural (a drought). The climax of the film involves a desperate against-the-clock attempt to construct an irrigation system to save the crops. The sequence is a bit long, but it is edited well and does make an exciting finale. Many critics have noted that the acting is not up to par, perhaps because Vidor was working on his labor of love outside the studio system and couldn't afford big names, but overall the cast isn't bad. Keene is a bit wooden, but so, as I recall, was James Murray in THE CROWD. Morley is fine, as is Qualen; Addison Richards is rather stiff as the mysterious Louie, a strong but quiet type who acts as a one-man police force but who has a secret which makes for a compelling subplot.

The reason I rented this disc from Netflix is because it contains the half-hour Dust Bowl documentary THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS. Until recently, all I knew about the Dust Bowl era was what I gleaned from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," but I just finished a great book about the Dust Bowl called "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan which piqued my interest in finding out more. As far as I know, the horrors of the Dust Bowl have never been used for a major fiction film. This explicit piece of propaganda was directed by Pare Lorentz and made for the U.S. Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency whose aim was to help the farmers leave the Great Plains, which had been made increasingly desolate by years of drought and dust storms. Back in the teens, the government had actively encouraged settlement and farming in the Plains, which led to boom years during WWI followed by over-farming of the land, soil erosion, and the terrible dust storms which killed animals and people and drove thousands out of the Plains. This interesting film is billed on its title card as a "picturization" of history, which means that, strictly speaking, it's not a traditional documentary, as most of the footage does not actually document historical events; it's more an impressionistic look at the period, using film shot at the time, often specifically staged by the director, to stand in for history with dramatic narration read over the otherwise silent footage, and accompanied by a wonderful score by Virgil Thompson. Most of the film is composed of sweeping shots of the land or of people working the land, with occasional close-ups of weathered farmer faces. The narration does indicate the government is largely responsible for what happened, but it also posits the government as the farmers' saving grace (through its resettlement activities). The combination of well-edited montage sequences, swelling music, and an authoritative-sounding, if sometimes melodramatic narrator, add up to an fairly effective film, though ultimately, in this post-cinema-verite age, it feels a little amorphous. [DVD]

Monday, August 14, 2006


A beautifully made film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, that approaches the subject of the Holocaust almost obliquely through the experience of one Jewish family in a town in Italy in the late 30's. As anti-Semitism is becoming not just socially acceptable but creeping into the laws of the land, we see the aristocratic Finzi-Contini family try to ignore what's happening by maintaining their own world inside their large urban estate. When the local tennis club bans Jews, the beautiful Micol (Dominique Sanda) and her handsome but frail brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) invite a group of friends to play (and socialize) in their gardens. Most of the story is told from the point of view of one of those tennis players, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a middle-class university student who has been harboring a crush on the aloof Micol for years. When the school library is declared off-limits to Jewish students, the Finzi-Continis encourage Giorgio to use their private library, and he finds himself growing close to the siblings, especially Micol. Giorgio believes that Micol has romantic feelings for him, but a direct attempt at seduction fails when she tells him that she thinks of him more like a brother (though there is a strong element of "come here/go away" ambiguity in her manner with him). The situation for the Jews keeps getting worse, but the family, who once held some power and influence in the town, keeps thinking that they can ride out this temporary problem, though they do send a younger brother out of the country for schooling. Giorgio's father (Romolo Valli), a member of the ruling Fascist party, also holds to the fatal belief that things can't keep getting worse. The other major character is Malnate (Fabio Testi), a dark hunk of a guy who is not Jewish but is Giorgio's best friend, and who winds up sleeping with Micol, despite her earlier insistence that he is "too hairy" for her tastes. There is a nice irony here in that Testi resembles the stereotype of the dark Jew, and virtually all the major Jewish characters are actually blond and lithe, like the Aryan stereotype (and Testi winds up with a fate as uncertain as any of the Jewish characters when he is conscripted into the Army). Most everyone ignores all signs of the gathering darkness until it's too late. The sickly Alberto dies at home, and Giorgio manages to get out of the country, but most of the rest of the characters are snared in the inevitable roundup of Jews to the camps.

The film, photographed by Ennio Guarnieri, is beautiful to look at, and generally I like the movie quite a bit, but I do agree with the critics who feel that are some problems with the depth of characterization. Some blame the actors, but I think it's more in the writing. We see most of the events of the film through Giorgio's eyes, and he, like the Michael York character in CABARET, is more a passive observer than anything else. The one time he does act decisively, putting the moves on Micol, it's a mistake. Capolicchio, like Michael York, does a good job with a tricky role. Micol is a cold cipher; I never felt like I understood anything she did, but I think Sanda is fine in the part. The biggest problem with the film is Alberto, who is the ultimate passive character--for most of the film, he really does almost nothing. Perhaps he is meant to be a symbol for the passive populace (Jewish and otherwise) who did nothing to stop the terror that would engulf them all, but that would seem to be superfluous symbolism here. Some critics read an incestuous tension between Micol and Alberto, and I can see that, though I think their relationship is more about a general decadence, that of beautiful, powerful people unmoored, with nothing to do and no resources of strength to resist when the times grow dark, only an ability to live in the past; surely it's not an accident that both Micol and Alberto play "Sentimental Journey" on their phonograph. Despite its flaws, this is well worth seeing. There is very little violence in the film, but the brutality of the times is still conveyed effectively. [DVD]

Saturday, August 12, 2006


This long-lost film, which re-surfaced in 2003, co-stars two of the biggest silent movie stars, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Unfortunately, it's no classic, though it's also not an embarrassment. Swanson is the youngest daughter of an old sea captain; her older sisters are pressuring her into making a good (financially good, that is) marriage to Robert Bolder, a self-made millionaire who is boring, unattractive, and many years too old for her. When Swanson's canoe tips over during an outing, the Earl of Bracondale (Valentino) saves her. There are sparks between the two, but nothing happens. Swanson gets married and while honeymooning in the Alps, has a climbing accident. Guess who just happens to be on the same mountain and comes to her rescue? Yep, Valentino, this time accompanied by his mother (Edythe Chapman) and a young woman Chapman hopes he will marry (Gertrude Astor). This time, the sparks are harder to deny. Valentino follows Swanson to Paris where Bolder is in the process of providing backing for an African expedition. Bolder is tempted to go along to Africa, but Valentino tells him it would be too dangerous. Swanson, torn between Bolder and Valentino, finally decides to break it off with Valentino, but letters that she sends to the two are switched by the jealous Astor, and when Bolder realizes that she loves Valentino but is still planning to stay in her marriage for his sake, he decides to go to Africa after all. Swanson and Valentino run after him and the triangle is resolved in the desert during an attack of marauding bandits. The material strikes me as about average for a romantic melodrama of the time, as does the acting. Neither of the stars do too much of the overacting (or what seems to us like overacting) that is common to early silent films, and Swanson is even a bit too low-key at times. She also seems too strong and earthy to be fully believable in the role of a passive pawn. The location scenes (certainly shot outdoors, but just as certainly not shot in the Alps or Africa) are effective. The score, written for the restoration, is terrible, way too modern-jazzy, but I did like the sound effects that crop up frequently. This is the first Valentino movie I've seen, and I don't know that I need to see any others, though it might be fun to see one of his Sheik movies for the heck of it. [TCM]

Friday, August 11, 2006


Just as it's difficult for me to put into words why CASABLANCA, on the surface a fairly ordinary WWII thriller, is such a great movie, it's difficult to say why CHINA GIRL isn't. I enjoyed watching it, but for the most part, it leaves the memory quickly despite having a wonderful visual style and an exciting plot not that different from CASABLANCA's. Set mostly in the city of Mandalay in Burma during November 1941, just before the United States officially went to war, the movie begins in a Chinese village where invading Japanese forces have arrested newsreel photographer George Montgomery as a spy. He escapes with some help from fellow prisoner Victor McLaglen (which involves a brief but very grim sequence in a pit of dead bodies) and the two are then spirited to safety by McLaglen's girlfriend, Lynn Bari. At a hotel in Mandalay, Montgomery meets the lovely Gene Tierney, who is selling some valuables to raise money for her father's work with orphans. When he starts flirting with her, he doesn't realize that she's Chinese; when he finds out, he hesitates for a moment but then kisses her roughly, as though he has something to prove. This turns her off at first, and Montgomery turns his attentions to Bari, but Tierney soon comes around to his charms and also lets him know that Bari and McLaglen are spies for the Japanese. The rest of the film covers several plot strands that come together at the end: 1) will Montgomery be able to bribe a pilot friend to let him hop a ride on his plane to get exclusive footage of the embattled Burma Road?; 2) how much of a pain in the ass will McLaglen and Bari be?; and 3) will Montgomery put personal concerns behind him and take the moral high ground in helping Tierney's father? There is a great fisticuffs scene with Montgomery, stripped to the waist, getting knocked around by McLaglen, and a flag-waving, propagandistic finale in which we see Montgomery transformed into a real hero. Also in the cast are Robert Blake, at the tender age of 9 playing a character a lot like Short Round in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Philip Ahn as Tierney's dignified father, and Sig Ruman as Jarubi, the antiques dealer who may or may not have sinister motives. Performances are solid all around. At times, McLaglen sounds disconcertingly like an evil Cary Grant; Bari almost steals the show as the femme fatale who wavers between good and bad; Montgomery, looking and sounding like fellow B-stalwart James Craig, is very good (and very good looking) but still short of coming off as an A-grade hero like Bogart, Cagney, or Flynn. The best thing about the movie is its look--good use of shadows and lights through blinds, slightly askew camera angles, atmospheric sets. Not a classic, perhaps, but a solid, light-on-its-feet romantic spy thrillers that I'm glad I saw. [FMC]

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


A rather drab desert melodrama that is technically a sequel to the silent BEAU GESTE (better known by classic movie buffs from the 1939 remake), carrying over a couple of major characters from the original story about a group of brothers and their adventures in the Foreign Legion. In this, one of the brothers (John, played by Ralph Forbes who played the same role in the silent film) is accused of insubordination and given 10 years of hard labor in the Legion's penal battalion. Back in England, Forbes' American childhood buddy (Lester Vail) finds out from Forbes' fiancee (Loretta Young) about his predicament. Though (or perhaps because) Vail also loves Young, he decides to join the Legion to find Forbes. He tries to provoke his commander into throwing him into the prisoner detail, but his heart isn't really into being subordinate. Nevertheless, during a long desert march gone wrong, Vail is accused (wrongly) of mutiny and ends up in the penal detail. He is put into a deep underground cell with a handful of other men, one of whom is Forbes, and they all wind up being left to starve when a native uprising leaves everyone above ground dead. Just as Forbes and Vail, the last two left alive, are about to expire, the arrival of an Arabian emir saves them. There is more plot surrounding the central narrative, mostly involving the tricky relationship between Vail and an Arabian princess (Leni Stengel), known as the Angel of Death, and the film ends with Vail leaving Stengel, whom Forbes refers to as a "half-caste dancing girl," to head back to England with Forbes. The movie is fairly well made and moves along at a decent pace. The plot does not unfold in chronological order, which gives the movie an effective and intense opening scene involving the dying Legionnaires in the pit. The main weakness is the acting, very much of the old-fashioned melodramatic declaiming style. Vail is OK, but not memorable, and Young has only a very small role. [DVD]

Friday, August 04, 2006

MY PAST (1931)

Pre-Code romantic melodrama without a lot to recommend it aside from a chance to see the husband/wife team of Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels together on the screen. She plays an actress who has been engaged in a long-term, on-and-off mistress relationship with middle-aged steel magnate Lewis Stone. While she's in town for a show, they meet up again and during a yacht party, she gets interested in Lyon, Stone's younger business partner. He's all work and no play, even at the party, but the next day, she goes skinny-dipping in the ocean, he jumps in after her, and a torrid affair begins. Lyon is married but eases Daniels' mind by telling her that they have an arrangement and are soon to be separated when she gets back from an overseas trip, but when the wife (Natalie Moorhead) shows up, it turns out that Lyon was exaggerating the separation news. An upset Daniels leaves Lyon and goes back to Stone, who wants to marry her. But wait! Moorhead realizes that there's no heat left in their relationship (and, by the way, she's met someone in Paris) so she suggests a divorce. Lyon, knowing that Stone is serious about Daniels, leaves for an extended European vacation. After some more melodrama involving Daniels almost dying (wasting away from malnutrition, I think), Stone gallantly steps out of the picture, literally delivering Daniels to Lyon and sailing off into the sunset. The principals are all fine, and Joan Blondell is even better in one of her usual brassy blonde supporting parts. There is a funny little moment when Daniels inscribes a copy of "The Maltese Falcon" for Lyon; that was the next movie for both Daniels and the director, Roy Del Ruth. The background music is frequently irritating, sounding like it was being played live just off-camera (which might have been the case). [TCM]

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


This fact-based drama about a World War II espionage operation is more interesting than compelling, and its quasi-documentary style will probably seem almost quaint in the post-James Bond era, but it's worth seeing. In the spring of 1943, the British are planning an invasion of Sicily; the Germans suspect as much and British Intelligence needs to come up with a plan to divert German forces away from the invasion site. Clifton Webb comes up with an ingenious idea: plant false plans on a dead body, indicating that the Allies plan to attack Greece, and have the corpse wash up where it would come to the attention of high-ranking Nazis. We watch Webb and his associates plan out every detail of the plot, called Operation Mincemeat. They find a young man in a hospital freshly dead of pneumonia, get his father's permission to use the body in the service of the war effort (though they can't tell him how his son is being used), and put the corpse in a dry ice container. Next they create an identity, naming him William Martin and planting personal effects on the body including a love letter written by Webb's secretary (Josephine Griffin) in addition to official letters indicating Greece as the invasion spot. The cat-and-mouse game begins when a submarine crew lets the container go in the sea off of Spain. The Germans' attention is indeed drawn by the discovery; after the body is buried and the British consulate asks for the belongings, the orders are returned, seemingly unopened, which could mean the Germans didn't take the bait, but scientific examination shows that the envelope was opened at the German consulate. However, the real suspense is just beginning: the Germans, suspecting something may be up, send a spy (Stephen Boyd) to England to dig up info about Martin, leading to some very tense scenes involving Gloria Grahame, Griffin's roommate, who has just lost a boyfriend in the war and winds up being instrumental to the fate of the plan. Webb is OK though he never feels very military, or even clever enough to mastermind the tricky plot. Most of the other actors (including Robert Flemyng, Cyril Cusack, and Michael Hordern) are very cut-and-dried in manner, appropriate to the "docudrama" feel of the film, but Boyd and Grahame are quite good at generating tension in the last 15 minutes. Apparently, most, if not all, of the last part of the film is fiction, but it really makes the movie work. [FMC]