Wednesday, November 29, 2006


A minor effort in the wartime genre of musical morale booster and armed services recruitment propaganda. The musical numbers are worth seeing, but the film largely winds up being a rehash Abbott & Costello's BUCK PRIVATES without Abbott & Costello. It does, however, retain the Andrews Sisters who provide many musical highlights, including a jammin' jitterbug version of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." The opening sequence, in a nightclub where Henry James and Helen Forrest perform "You Made Me Love You," has some fine comedy work from the unlikely team of Mary Wickes and Shemp Howard, best known as one of the Three Stooges. The main plot thread involves the Henry James band getting drafted. Singer Dick Foran is turned down at first due to flat feet, but when he does get accepted, he winds up being a pain in the ass, thinking that he's better than everyone else and deserves a cushy job. Of course, he learns his patriotic lesson by the end. Joe E. Lewis plays a rival for Wickes' charms, Ernest Truex is an eccentric who lives near the Army base and Jennifer Holt is his niece, who winds up sweet on Foran. A very young Donald O'Connor plays an underage soldier who gets to do a dance number with the James Band. There's a cute running joke about trumpeter James not being able to play "Taps" in the morning. Most of music is fun, and the oddest number hands down has the whitebread Foran singing the gospel song "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." [DVD]

Monday, November 27, 2006


This comical "detectives in an old dark house" flick is a B-movie with mostly B-talent, and does not have much of a reputation, but something about it hit me the right way. Instead of a haunted mansion, the dark and sinister setting is an abandoned lighthouse which is, one rainy night, being visited by new owner John Eldredge. Though he expects the place to be empty, he finds a dead body hanging from the middle of the tower. In short order, the place fills up with all kinds of folks: cops Allen Jenkins and Hugh Herbert, a hysterical woman (Marcia Ralston) who claims that the dead man is her stepfather, a old sea captain named Hook (George Rosener) who, yep, has a hook and freaks out when he hear clocks ticking, an old lady (Elspeth Dudgeon) who was Ralston's nanny, and assorted other hangers-on. Somehow, all this is tied up with a mysterious crime figure called The Octopus (and maybe with a real octopus, whose tentacles keep slithering out from around corners and secret panels) and a radium death ray invented by the dead man. Oops, I forgot that Herbert's wife, whom we never see, is in labor, which turns out to be one of the most important points of all. Things quit making sense pretty quickly, and almost no one is whom he or she seems to be. If you've seen similar movies, like THE GORILLA or SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, it won't take long to figure out where the story is heading, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the trip--the movie is supposedly based directly on the same play that THE GORILLA was, though it plays out much more like BALDPATE. I can't make any claims for this as a classic, but frankly I had more fun watching this than watching the more famous THE OLD DARK HOUSE. There are a couple of genuinely creepy moments, including one spectacular facial transformation special effect, achieved in real time with make-up and lighting filters. The trick ending will seem like a cop-out to some, but if you're expecting it, it's fun to see how they get there. Jenkins and Herbert play off each other nicely, and Herbert has a fun slapstick scene involving turtles, frogs, and a seal. Eldredge is a rather colorless hero; Dudgeon (who had a small but important role in THE OLD DARK HOUSE) is the most effective supporting player, aside from that rubbery (and mostly offscreen) octopus. At under an hour, this is a good way to pass some time on a rainy night. [TCM]

Friday, November 24, 2006


This fantasy adventure (which intelligent design advocates would boycott today) feels like a missing link between the 50's and 60's stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen and the elaborate CGI worlds of Spielberg's JURASSIC PARK and Peter Jackson's KING KONG. The dinosaurs here seem to be mostly miniatures or full-size models, and while they're not as effective as the digital creations of today, they move in a more realistic fashion than the mythological creations of Harryhausen. The plot is taken from a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs and involves the discovery of an island where evolution has run rampant. Set during WWI, the film begins at sea in a dense fog with a German submarine sinking a British supply ship; a handful of survivors (including husky American Doug McClure and British scientist Susan Penhaligon) take refuge on top of the sub when it surfaces and wrest control from German officer John McEnery. They decide to head for a neutral coast but McEnery sabotages the compass and seesawing power games ensue, the upshot being that the sub winds up in uncharted waters. Lost and worried about dwindling fuel and food supplies, the motley group comes upon an island that McEnery assumes is the mythical continent of Caprona, inhabited by dinosaurs and cavemen at varying degrees of biological advancement, with more evolved creatures present as they head north. They kill and cook a plesiosaurus, manage to communicate with a relatively friendly caveman, and discover oil which they hope to use to get back to civilization, but external dangers and internal strife cause our group problems, leading to an exciting climax. The acting is decent, with McEnery and Anthony Ainley (as an untrustworthy German lieutenant) standouts. Penhaligon has a nothing role and can't do much with it. McClure plays the hero with stolid conviction. The effects and sets might not pass muster for today's viewers, but I found the film, the kind I associate with the long Thanksgiving weekends of my childhood, to be more fun than I expected. [TCM]

Thursday, November 23, 2006


By sheer coincidence, I saw these two archetypal pirate movies, made in the same year, on the same day. I had ordered CRIMSON PIRATE from Netflix after reading some very positive comments about it, and the day it came, BLACKBEARD popped up on Turner Classic Movies, so I thought they would make a nice pairing. Instead, viewing the two just strengthened my resolve to avoid pirate movies (I may be the only person in America who found PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN to be a total bore, though I will admit that Johnny Depp does a good Keith Richards). CRIMSON has some plusses, mostly rich Technicolor, the physique of its star Burt Lancaster, and a tongue-in-cheek tone, but I was a little weary of all the capital-F fun by the end. The plot has pirate Lancaster and his crew hijacking a ship belonging to a baron who is on his way to put down an island revolt led by El Libre, but when they find that the ship has more arms than riches, Lancaster works out a scheme in which the pirates will sell the arms to the rebels, then, for a fee, betray the rebels and El Libre to the baron. Once on the island, Lancaster falls in love with El Libre's daughter (Eva Bartok), faces up to his band of pirates who are tired of playing politics and just want to get back to plundering, and decides to double-cross the baron. The swashbuckling antics are well executed by the athletic star and his mute sidekick, Nick Cravat, who in real life had worked with Lancaster in the circus, and the opening scene, in which the pirates have splayed themselves across the ship pretending to be dead plague victims, is excellent. But the rest is just too much sound and fury to too little purpose. Torin Thatcher and Christopher Lee are standouts in the supporting cast. [DVD]

Oddly, Thatcher, whom I know best as the villain in the 60's fantasy JACK THE GIANT KILLER, is also in BLACKBEARD. This movie isn't as colorful and doesn't have as much "fun" action going on, but it has a stronger plot and a sense of real danger, with more actual death and dismemberment going on. Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in a 1950 version of TREASURE ISLAND, is the title character, scourge of the shipping lanes, and much sought after by the former pirate Sir Henry Morgan (Thatcher) who has renounced pirating and vowed to capture Newton for the King. Meanwhile, Keith Andes is a doctor who believes that Thatcher hasn't really left his wicked ways behind and is out to get evidence against him. Andes winds up a prisoner of Newton's (and a useful one since he's a doctor), along with the lovely Linda Darnell, adopted daughter of Thatcher, who may have some hidden treasure with her. Indeed, she does, and Newton tries to spirit it away so as not to have to split it with his men. After some fierce fighting, Newton pulls off a deception by killing a look-alike to make it seem as if he's dead (with his head hanging in the public square), but he doesn't get the last laugh after all, with a grimly comic finale, particularly dark for a 50's film. Andes makes for a fairly dashing good guy (though not as studly as Lancaster), but Newton is always front and center and doesn't let a single scene get stolen from him. His performance is wildly over the top, and it seems as if he single-handedly created the "Arrrrrrggh..." stereotype which has been milked so often since--he starts practically every line of dialogue with that sound, and though it's fun in the beginning, it gets a bit tiring. Irene Ryan (later Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies) gets some mild laughs as Darnell's companion, and William Bendix is OK as Newton's sidekick. I believe I've had me fill of pirate movies for a while. [TCM]

Monday, November 20, 2006


Technically, this Hal Roach comedy is classified as a short subject, though at 45 minutes, it's a only a few minutes shy of a B-movie second feature of the era, and it apparently played some theaters as the first half of a double bill. It has been charged over the years with being offensive, but I don't think it's any worse than TO BE OR NOT TO BE or THE PRODUCERS--though, obviously done on the cheap, it's not nearly as well made or creative as those films. The Board of Directors of Hell has decided that Hitler would make a better Devil than the Devil himself (Alan Mowbray), but the Devil asks for the chance to go to earth and trick Hitler (Bobby Watson) into committing one good deed, rendering him unfit for the job. The Devil appears on Earth as Hitler's valet and joins Mussolini (Joe Devlin) and a Japanese dignitary named Sukiyaki (George E. Stone) as they try to outwit, double-cross and even kill Hitler. The good deed that Satan tries to arrange comes by way of freeing a young couple (Douglas Fowley and Marjorie Woodworth) from a concentration camp sentence. There's lots of slapstick and prancing and ethnic slurs and witless humor, and perhaps the first instance of a Hitler character saying some version of the phrase, "Heil myself!" Mowbray is a very colorless Satan; Watson, who made a living in the 40's playing Hitler in comedies and drama, is OK; Devlin and Stone, both experienced character actors, fare the best here, though Stone's over-the-top Japanese portrayal hasn't aged well. Not really a very good movie, but interesting from a cultural and historical perspective. [TCM]

Thursday, November 16, 2006


A historically important landmark as the first openly anti-Nazi Hollywood film; it was produced before the war when the Nazis were largely reviled in America, but the country was still officially neutral and Germany had not yet invaded Poland. Hollywood studios didn't want to risk losing the lucrative foreign markets so, though there had been movies with vaguely Middle European enemies, none had gone so far as to name the Nazis as villains. This film was based on a series of newspaper articles written by FBI man Leon Turrou which detailed the breaking of a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., and though it doesn't actually name real names, it does follow the real-life outlines of the case quite closely. The film was so controversial that Jack and Harry Warner were accused by Congress of warmongering. While it's certainly no stylistic masterpiece for the ages, it is a fast-moving spy movie for at least half of its length, and, while lacking much in the way of thrills or action, it is mostly compelling, interesting, and contains a handful of good performances.

The film begins in a documentary newsreel fashion by swiftly introducing us to most of the characters we'll be following for the next 100 minutes. In a Scottish village, we see Mrs. McLaughlin (Eily Malyon) receiving and resending mail for a Nazi spy ring. Next we visit a German-American social group meeting at which Dr. Kassel (Paul Lukas) is whipping up support for Germans who want to "save" America, who want to make America "our America." Lukas uses the overexcited style of Hitler in his speechifying, and is not above encouraging heavy-handed tactics to quash dissent, as we see in a scene in which Ward Bond gets roughed up after he speaks out at a meeting, saying "We don't want any --isms in this country except Americanism." Lukas is soon made head of American spy operations and told to wrap his fascist messages "in the American flag," and to incite race and class hatred. Next, on a German ocean liner on its way to America, we meet Schlager (George Sanders), his mistress Hilda (Dorothy Tree) and two Gestapo agents, who intimidate the captain of the ship into following Nazi orders. Finally, there's unemployed Kurt Schneider (Frances Lederer); his wife objects to his "sitting around and thinking" all day, but he's biding his time as a minor spy until his friend (Joe Sawyer) agrees to get him military information to pass on to his contact, Sanders. Lederer hopes to prove his worth to the Nazis and to make good money, but Sanders gives him chump change and little respect, so Lederer tries to go over Sanders' head and sends some spy info directly to Malyon in Scotland. Unfortunately, a clever mailman has alerted authorities to the wide array of foreign mail she receives and she's busted, which leads to the FBI being called in on the trail of the spy ring.

The energy flags a bit during the second half of the film, which focuses on Edward G. Robinson as the FBI man tracking down the ring members. Lederer is busted when he naively poses as the "Under-Secretary of State" in an attempt to smuggle passports, and Robinson uses some basic psychology to make the poor schmuck feel more important than he really is to get him to talk. Sanders escapes and Lukas, who is betrayed by his wife, talks to the feds and later gets on a ship for Germany, certain to face the music from his superiors. Lederer and some of his associates are put on trial, and the film ends anti-climactically with an odd little conversation in which Robinson and U.S. attorney Henry O'Neill express the surreal absurdity of their adventure. Though the documentary style of the film works against any real depth of characterization, the central trio of Lukas, Sanders, and Lederer are always quite watchable. Sanders, in particular, is striking; he has a modified Prussian buzz cut, and I'd swear that his nose or chin have been altered to give him an even more sinister look; his voice never drips with his usual patina of sarcasm and irony and he completely disappears into his role. German actress Lya Lys has a small role as Lukas' mistress, and John Ridgely, one of my favorite Warners supporting players, has a line or two as an Army hospital clerk. This runs on Turner Classic Movies quite a bit, but it would be nice to have this on a DVD, with a commentary track, given how much has been written about the film. [TCM]

Monday, November 13, 2006


I know nothing about the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt, played here by Charles Laughton, but a quick perusal of an encyclopedia entry tells me that this film is more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, this is a well-acted and nicely shot film, directed by Alexander Korda, who also directed Laughton in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. The episodic film begins with Rembrandt, well known and respected, at the peak of his career and in the midst of working on a portrait of his wife, who is ailing (and whom we never see). As he delivers a long, adoring ode to his wife to his friends in a tavern, he is summoned to her deathbed. At the funeral meal, he continues the painting as though she's still posing. What follows is a series of narrative snapshots from the rest of his life. His long-awaited, gigantic, and expensive painting of the Civic Guard of Amsterdam ("Night Watch") is reviled by the Guard members for making them look undignified. His loyal housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence) becomes his lover, but they cannot marry until his young son comes of age because of a clause in the will of his wife that would leave him bankrupt if he did. He has a beggar (Roger Livesey) pose for a portrait of the biblical Saul. Afraid he's going to lose his house to creditors, he goes back to live in his provincial hometown but feels like a misfit. On his return to Amsterdam, he is struck by the sight of a kitchen maid (Elsa Lanchester), paints her, and ultimately takes her as a lover, igniting Lawrence's wrath. Lanchester figures out a way for him to get around his creditors, who try to claim any new work of his for themselves, by setting up her own gallery of his work which he has given freely to her. By the end of the film, he is aged and alone except for a benefactor who gives him money for food (which he promptly spends on art supplies). The penultimate scene, with Laughton proclaiming, "All is vanity" to a table of carousing youths who have included him in their drinking, is Laughton at his best. The look of the film is painterly, with lots of bright light and vivid textures, apparently meant to conjure up Rembrandt's own technique with light. My favorite moment is Laughton, in a reverie, talking not entirely happily, about the burden of living "in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist." The movie is also worth seeing for Gertrude Lawrence, the actress played by Julie Andrews in STAR! and parodied by Ann Sheridan in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, giving a rare screen performance. [DVD]

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Mild romantic comedy which for me is more irritating than funny for two reasons: its fake feminist plot trappings and the performance of Robert Montgomery. He's a struggling shipbuilder married to a successful theatrical agent (Virginia Bruce). He snags a dream job that involves moving from New York City to New Bedford, and he assumes that his wife will give up her job and move with him. She, however, actually likes her job and wants to keep it, which leads to strife and separation. Her boss (Warren William) tries to help her and a battle of lawyers follows with some standard-issue trickery ensuing between the two sides. The sticking point winds up being a suggestion that she pay him alimony since she's making more money. When an ailing but beloved uncle (Harry Davenport) comes to visit, Montgomery agrees to spend the night to make the uncle think everything's fine, but Bruce's lawyer (Alan Dinehart) uses the occasion to snare him in a legal trap (sort of the opposite of the "Gay Divorcee" trap, using his presence at her place to imply that he's living with her and therefore not eligible to get alimony). I was disposed to like the film because Bruce is so appealing and her character clearly likes her career, but then things get resolved by biology: she finds out she's pregnant and decides to follow Montgomery away from the city to be a wife and mother. The moral of this tale can be encapsulated in one line of dialogue at the end: "Nature--that monkey wrench in the machinery of women's independence." Binnie Barnes and Lee Bowman do fine as friends who try to swoop in on Montgomery and Bruce. Montgomery is at his most doltish and irritating, but I do like Virginia Bruce, so I guess I'm glad to have seen this. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2006


Nifty little B-thriller, the first in an 8-film series based on a popular radio show. Despite the title, this was not a superhero or detective series, but a suspense anthology (think Twilight Zone atmosphere but without the fantasy elements) which told crime stories with ironic twists. The title character was the narrator (think Rod Serling never showing his face) who would also sometimes comment on the action; once in a while we'd see him from a distance, strolling along and whistling mournfully. In this one, Richard Dix (who starred in most of the films, always playing different characters) is a man who, depressed over the apparent death of his wife at sea in a Japanese attack, hires someone to kill him. The middleman (George Lloyd) farms the job out to seasoned hitman J. Carroll Naish who begins staking out his prey. When Dix gets a telegram telling him that his wife is alive in a Japanese prison camp and is being shipped home soon, he's ecstatic and sets out to cancel the hit. Unfortunately, Lloyd was a cop killer who was himself killed by cops just after setting up Dix's hit. Dix thinks Lloyd's girl (Joan Woodbury) can help him stop the hitman, but she thinks that Dix set Lloyd up, so she's not much help, and in fact endangers his life by involving him in a log mountain road chase with police. When Dix drops out of sight to escape Naish, the newspapers say that he has amnesia and Dix's loyal secretary (the always wonderful Gloria Stuart) tries to find him. The hour-long film moves along nicely, though the climax, as in many B-films, is rushed and choppy and the production values are about average for a second-feature. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


If you're only going to watch one "tropical melodrama" in your life, it should probably be THE LETTER, but if you decide to watch a second one, make it this one. I have a weakness for this kind of movie in which Americans, stuck in the Equatorial climes working at a rubber plantation (as in this film) or searching for riches or cruising on a ship, come to some kind of grief, usually involving romance or guns or both. This one, based on a 20's play, is a lot of fun; it's not quite campy, like the the Jon Hall/Maria Montez jungle films, because its humor is usually deliberate and the acting is restrained. Set in 1910 Africa, the film begins with Walter Pidgeon, the local magistrate, waiting to welcome the new plantation manager, young and energetic Richard Carlson, who is replacing Bramwell Fletcher, a burned out alcoholic. The cynical, tightly wound Pidgeon predicts that Carlson will soon wind up just like Fletcher, destroyed by "damp rot." (There is a running gag involving Pidgeon's violent reaction to Fletcher constantly saying "Blasted hot today," and later Carlson irritates him in the same way saying, "When I get acclimated...") Carlson is warned about the notorious exotic half-breed Tondelayo (Hedy Lamarr), but when she comes slinking into his shack, he goes slack-jawed with lust. Eventually, Carlson marries Lamarr (there appear to be virtually no other women in the area), but she soon gets restless and starts flirting with Pidgeon. When nothing comes of that, she sets about slowly poisoning Carlson. Some reviewers claim that there is a love triangle among the three leads, but I didn't see much evidence that Pidgeon actually wanted Lamarr, though he may be jealous that Carlson has a wife in their godforsaken corner of the world, and it seems clear that Lamarr has no real affection for either of the men, above and beyond any money and trinkets she can get. The film is rather stagy, with most of the action taking place in just a few interior rooms, but it all does feel effectively hot and grungy, especially with all the sweating flesh (mostly Carlson's). The role of Tondelayo is usually cited as the one that Lamarr is best known for, and she certainly looks striking with her dusky makeup (she's supposed to be half-Arabian, raised by African natives); it also helps that she is always shot in shadow or with a shadow across her face, making her look mysterious. Her acting talents, such as they were, don't get much of a workout. The youthful and sexy Carlson is fine, as is Frank Morgan as a well-meaning but frequently drunken doctor, Henry O'Neill as the local Reverend, and Reginald Owen as a skipper. Pidgeon is the weak link as far as I'm concerned; he is wooden and unappealing, and substitutes volume of voice for expression of emotion. But the movie is still great fun, though not for a second to be taken seriously. [TCM]

Saturday, November 04, 2006


My partner and I have been having a lot of fun watching reruns of the 50's detective series "77 Sunset Strip" on the American Life cable network. The show follows the adventures of two private eyes, Stu Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith, quite the hottie, one year after he played Mame's nephew in AUNTIE MAME) who operate out of an L.A. office next to a nightclub called Dino's, which practically serves as their waiting room. The two are swinging bachelors who are always finding some innocent girl or femme fatale to flirt with. The show is probably better remembered these days for the character of Kookie (Edward Byrnes), the flip, hip young guy who was always combing his hair while he parked cars at Dino's, called everyone "Dad," and often helped out on cases. This film was apparently the 90-minute pilot for the show; according to online episode guides, it was aired as the first episode in October '58 and as far as I can tell, never received a theatrical release, but despite the presence of Zimbalist and Byrnes, it bears only a tangential relationship to the series that followed. Zimbalist gets involved in the case of a young singer (Erin O'Brien) who has fled Seattle after seeing the murder of a star witness in a major criminal case. She winds up in L.A. under an assumed name and Zimbalist tracks her down for a man (Shepperd Strudwick) who claims to be her boyfriend. He's not, however; he's the DA on the Seattle case who has a nasty secret or two of his own. Byrnes plays, not Kookie, but Kenneth Smiley, a cold-blooded killer who nevertheless has an amusing scene in which he remains behind in a theater long enough to finish watching a Daffy Duck cartoon. Also in the cast is Barton MacLane (one of the cops who made trouble for Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON). It's a little slow getting started, and I missed Roger Smith, who never shows up, but there are some good fisticuffs and chases, and the show does set up the Zimbalist character as a scholar of Sanskrit, a plot detail that crops up during the run of the show a couple of times. It's also nice to see Byrnes get a chance to stretch a little beyond his insolent hipster persona. [TV]

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Though made after WWII, this is the kind of movie that Hollywood pumped out in the years before America was officially engaged in the war: a quick history of a particular branch of the military or of a military breakthrough. Here, Gary Cooper serves as the focus for a story about the development of the aircraft carrier as a practical addition to the forces of the United States Navy. The film begins with Cooper retiring and then flashes back to 25 years earlier when pilots were just learning to land on the first carrier of its kind, the Langley. Some Navy brass and Congressmen are against developing a carrier fleet, and Commander Walter Brennan enlists Cooper to go to Washington to do some sweet talking; instead he gets into a spat with a powerful lawmaker (Stanley Ridges) when he speculates that Japan might have sinister intentions and a carrier fleet would be a perfect defense. We follow Cooper over the years as he gets demoted to a desk job, put back into a flying job, suffers through a crash, marries Jane Wyatt (widow of a fellow Navy pilot), and continues promoting aircraft carriers (and continues to antagonize Ridges). Of course, Cooper's predictions about a sea war with Japan come true and his career comes to its peak when he winds up on the Enterprise, the last carrier left in action. The bulk of the film is in black & white, with the last reel (about 20 minutes worth) in color, for no apparent reason. Cooper was entering what I think of as his "old man" phase and he's not particularly convincing as a young man. There's a decent supporting cast which includes Wayne Morris, Bruce Bennett, and John Ridgely as fellow pilots, and singer Julie London as Morris's gal. It's predictable (you just know that some tangential character is gonna die at Pearl Harbor so that "this time, it's personal") and a fair amount of newsreel footage is worked in toward the end. Not a bad movie, but at two hours, not one I'd care to sit through again. [TCM]