Saturday, December 30, 2006


I've gotten to the point, as I noted earlier this month, where I sometimes feel like I've seen everything worth seeing and there's nothing out there to surprise me in the realm of classic movies, but luckily I keep finding gems here and there, or I revisit a movie I've seen before and find new details or depths. I keep meaning to write up more of my "revisitings" here and with the increasing number of older films seeing the light of day on DVD (and the number of boxed sets I got for Christmas), that may be more likely to happen in '07. Below are my favorite discoveries of 2006:

BOSTON BLACKIE'S RENDEZVOUS (1945): One in a series of B-detective films featuring Chester Morris; this one has a fairly intense, modern feel to it, concerning a psycho serial killer, well played by Steve Cochran. I'm glad to see that TCM will be showing a few of these in January. (reviewed 6/06)

CHINA GIRL (1942): It sure ain't CASABLANCA but it is a lively B-variation on its plot, with a nice cast (George Montgomery, Gene Tierney, Lynn Bari). (8/06)

THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976): great Kafkaesque fable about the military mindset and war (or the lack thereof); I'd never heard of the director, Valerio Zulini, but I will be searching out more films by him. (12/06)

FOUR SONS (1940): How the lives of a family in Czechoslovakia change when the Nazis take over. Formulaic and studio-bound, but compelling with an interesting cast of actors who, aside from Don Ameche, never made the big time. (3/06)

THE OUTLAW (1943): I can't believe I'm actually including this on my year-end list. No one can possibly think this campy western starring Jane Russell's breasts is a good movie, but damn, it's weird and fun, and Jack Buetel, the leading man whose career went nowhere, is mannered and strange and almost as sexy as Russell. (2/06)

SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937): This B-comedy/thriller gets no respect but I enjoyed it as much as any "old dark house" comedy I've ever seen. It's silly with an ending that's a letdown, but it has energy, some good spooky effects, and a particularly effective performance from Elspeth Dudgeon. (11/06)

A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) & THE WORKING MAN (1933): Two delightful domestic comedies with George Arliss, not among his more important films, but fun, with solid supporting casts. (7/06)

SUNDAY PUNCH (1942): Unpretentious B-boxing movie with a charming cast (William Lundigan, Dan Dailey, Jean Rogers, and Sam Levene). (5/06)

WHITE CARGO (1942): One of the best examples of the tropical melodrama genre. The stiff Walter Pidgeon is a drag, but sweaty Richard Carlson and slinky Hedy Lamarr make this worth seeing, not to mention the humor, both intentional and not. (11/06)

THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU (1929): A silent German film about people stuck on a mountain during a storm. Exciting and beautifully filmed, with an OK performance by infamous director Leni Riefenstahl. (4/06)

YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940): My favorite Kay Kyser movie, made even more fun by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and tons of spooky atmosphere. (10/06)

I also liked the desert noir INFERNO (5/06), the British war film WENT THE DAY WELL? (9/06), the colorful soap opera WRITTEN ON THE WIND (12/06), and THE FAN (7/06), a version of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan." I enjoyed discovering that Tyrone Power could do romantic comedy (CAFE METROPOLE and DAY-TIME WIFE, both 4/06), I loved seeing more films with George Arliss (7/06), William Lundigan (5/06) and Kay Kyser (9/06), and I got guilty pleasure from Roger Corman's CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (10/06) and from finally seeing an uncut, non-MST3K version of THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (10/06). There were some great boxed sets at my birthday party and under my Christmas tree (Preston Sturges, Forbidden Hollywood, Boris Karloff, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Frank Capra, Astaire & Rogers). As far as my favorite TV network, Turner Classic Movies, I liked TCM Underground and the fact that they are showing more smaller gems from the Columbia library; I hope for even more in the new year (the presence of Boston Blackie films on the January schedule is a good sign).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


One reason I avoid reviewing most of the more well-known classic films is because, if they are among my favorites, I have usually seen them over and over, and I find it difficult to judge them dispassionately. However, two recent articles, one about THE BISHOP'S WIFE (1947) on the New York Times Op/Ed page and one about THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) online in Slate, have nudged me into commenting on two of my favorite Christmas movies. My comments, however, have little to do with the holiday and more to do with a minor epiphany about why I like the movies I like: the supporting casts. So much depends on a strong bunch of interesting secondary characters and a strong cast of actors to play them, and both of these movies have such characters and actors. Of course, the stars and the stories of both films are quite wonderful. THE BISHOP'S WIFE concerns a bishop (David Niven) who, in using all his energy to raise money to build a multi-million dollar cathedral. has lost sight of several things that are more important in life, including his relationships with his wife (Loretta Young), child, and old friends, and his connection to the Biblical command of charity. When he prays for help to raise more funds, an angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) comes down at Christmas to guide him back toward the intangibles he has been neglecting (rather like John Payne and Edmund Gwenn do for Maureen O'Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET). While the central trio of stars are excellent, especially Niven, it is the supporting cast that makes this film so special: Gladys Cooper as a rich old biddy who is withholding her crucial support until Niven agrees to build the church exactly as she wants it; James Gleason as a taxi driver who takes a shine to Grant and Young, whom he assumes are engaged to be married; and especially Monty Woolley as a retired history professor (forced out before his time, we are led to believe, because of his atheism). All three take relatively small roles and make them all feel central, at one time or another, to the narrative. Woolley's character is one of the few atheists I can remember in a major film, and though in the next to last scene, he finds that Grant's influence is pushing him into the church's doors on Christmas Eve, we're also left, largely due to Woolley's playing, unsure as to how deep his conversion will go. Elsa Lanchester, Sara Haden, and Regis Toomey are all fine in smaller roles. The film is sweet, yes, but also quirky enough that it doesn't become sappy. This is a Christmas movie I can watch all year around.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER has James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as clerks in a leather goods store in Budapest who have been falling in love with each other via a pen-pal relationship, not realizing that they work together (and don't exactly get along). Of course, it's no surprise when things work out by the last scene, on Christmas Eve, and the two make a nice somewhat prickly pair of lovers, but the real surprise is a major subplot which involves the owner of the store (Frank Morgan) who suspects his wife of infidelity. When he finds out that his suspicions are correct, he attempts suicide (like the element of atheism in BISHOP'S WIFE, not a plot twist you find in the average romantic comedy). Morgan gives perhaps his greatest performance here, mostly free of his usual tics and mannerisms, and the rest of the shop's employees (primarily Felix Bressart, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and William Tracy) are all fleshed out to one degree or another, especially the delightful Bressart. Like BISHOP'S WIFE, the potential for sappiness is held down by the subplots and the acting; Stewart and Sullavan are fine, but the rest of the cast all get chances to shine as well, and help make this another holiday film that shouldn't just be watched in December. In fact, I find myself far more moved by Morgan's touching last scene than by the wrap-up of the central romance. While I would never want to give up my "starwatching" (I can't imagine Hollywood movies without Grant and Stewart and Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), I also like being reminded how much a subtle turn by a character actor (in a well-written role) can add to the magic of moviewatching, and these two films are top-notch examples of that magic.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Damon Runyon was a popular writer in the first half of the 20th century whose stories romanticized members of the New York City underclass: gangsters, bookies, gamblers, chorus girls, panhandlers, and assorted Broadway hangers-on. Even if you've never read him, you know his characters from movies like GUYS AND DOLLS and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES. They're all scam artists but most of them are also at heart nice guys (and dolls), and they speak in a colorful style that uses slang, unusual phrasing, precise grammar, and long sentences, as in this line from GUYS AND DOLLS: "For two weeks I gambled in green pastures; the dice were my cousins and the dolls were agreeable with nice teeth and no last names." I find most of the Runyon movies a bit too precious, though they all have their moments of charm--I like POCKETFUL best, though most movie buffs prefer its original source, the 1933 LADY FOR A DAY. This one is better known as a Christmas movie as it takes place during the holidays and introduced the song, "Silver Bells," one of my very favorite modern carols, but overall it doesn't have a strong Christmas flavor. Bob Hope is the title character, an affable con man who we first see at a racetrack in Florida, running a touting scheme and scamming folks into thinking that he can talk to the horses. He cheats well-heeled mobster Fred Clark out of $10,000, and Clark gives him until Christmas to pay him back. Hope is sure he can raise the money back in New York (where Clark will be by the 25th , trying to sell an old casino of his) but his hoped-for backer, low-level racketeer and nightclub owner Lloyd Nolan, doesn't come through. Hope starts a charity scam, dressing as Santa Claus and raising money to use Clark's empty casino for a home for "Old Dolls" who are no longer able to make ends meet on the streets. He gets a bunch of street pals to dress as Santas and help collect funds, and he takes a group of old ladies in at the casino, but he plans to abscond with the money on Christmas Day to pay off Clark. Nolan gets wind of the plan and tires to muscle in, going so far as to kidnap the dolls. Naturally, this being Damon Runyon's world, Hope has a change of heart and manages to cross up both Clark and Nolan in the process. Marilyn Maxwell plays Hope's main squeeze, who (like Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) has been trying to get her man to marry her for years. Jane Darwell is Nellie Thursday, the "old doll" who inspires Hope; Andrea King is Clark's gal; William Frawley, Jay C. Flippen, and Sid Melton are also in the cast. An early scene of Hope, dressed for Florida but arriving in New York during a snowstorm, is very funny, and when Hope and Maxwell sing "Silver Bells" while strolling along the city streets, it becomes a full-fledged production number, and one of the best Christmas moments in any Hollywood film. Hope doesn't try to build a character; he really only has a line or two of dialogue that sounds authentically Runyonesque, and it might have been better if he hadn't tired at all. Amusing, if not quite a timeless classic. [VHS]

Friday, December 22, 2006


Each year at this time I watch at least one made-for-TV Christmas movie (usually on a cable channel like Lifetime or ABC Family) which stars a blandly handsome leading man (and they all do, which leaves me a big choice). This year's pickings, though plentiful, felt slim in terms of theme: they all were romances. I realize that holiday romance stories are nothing new, but most of the classic Christmas movies (WONDERFUL LIFE, CHRISTMAS CAROL, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, THE BISHOP'S WIFE, etc.) put romance on a back burner or make the romance just one element of a larger, more general "miraculous" redemption. Until recently, even the TV movies were often versions of these stories, but now they all seem to be average love stories set almost at random during the Christmas holidays. This one in particular, despite the presence of a climactic snowstorm, really has almost nothing to do thematically with Christmas. Our couple consists of Eric Mabius, a mellow advertising guy who yearns to be a serious (as in magazine features) writer, and Sarah Paulson, a driven real estate agent. They meet cute while skating on Christmas Day; he proposes to her a year later and they set their wedding for next Christmas. At Thanksgiving, Paulson's boss (Dean Cain) calls her away on an extended trip to sell a major resort to some Japanese investors, but she's confident that all the plans are in place and she'll be back in plenty of time for the wedding. Of course, as soon as she leaves, things start falling apart (the organist cancels, the reception hall can't accommodate them), leaving a frazzled Mabius to pull things together. Cain talks Paulson into staying a few extra days by promising her a vice-presidency, and when she finally does get headed home, a couple of storms snarl her travel plans; as the hour of the wedding nears, she is stranded several miles from the church, so things look grim, but since this is a Lifetime movie, there's a happy if implausible ending (hint: pay close attention to the throwaway line early in the movie about a group of Vietnam vets that Mabius is writing about). I like Paulson on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," but she's nothing special here, and Mabius is on the low end of the "blandly handsome" continuum. Cain almost saves the show with his high-powered shtick. At first, I was glad that the writers resisted the urge to have Cain become a romantic rival, but later I wishing they would have done anything to give him more screen time. No one in the supporting cast registers, due more to weak writing than to their performances. The plot is contrived and the weather disaster scenes (involving both rain and snow) are poorly done. I hope this is the only piece of coal I get for Christmas this year. [Lifetime]

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


A fluffy pre-Code comedy about a wallflower who blossoms when men think that she has a "dangerous" past. Constance Bennett is a rich girl who is known as a drab bore. Indeed, though she is not unattractive, and upper-crust young men do occasionally approach her at parties, her posture is awkward and she gets nervous and starts talking about books, and the men wind up walking away while she begins mumbling to herself. One night at a party, Bennett is especially frustrated because the woman getting everyone's attention is a suspected murderess (Merna Kennedy). The hostess, Astrid Allwyn, asks her friend, David Manners, to spend some time with Bennett, but he remains more fascinated with Kennedy until Allwyn convinces him that Bennett has an equally mysterious past. At the end of the evening, drunk and rebuffed by Kennedy, Manners proposes to Bennett and asks her to sail with him to Europe. The next morning, however, he's patched things up with the murderess so Bennett sails alone. In Paris, she meets up with penniless charmer Ben Lyon and hires him as a "kind of gigolo" to take her around the town and show her how to become a fascinating woman. Naturally, in no time flat, Bennett is a hot commodity, sought after by many, including a count (Albert Conti) who commits suicide when she spurns him. She soon meets up with Manners who is quite taken with her new persona, but who can't get a moment alone with her. Though the plotline is predictable, I admit I wasn't sure whether she would wind up with Lyon or Manners, and I was a bit surprised at the outcome. There is a somewhat startling scene of physical danger that winds up being a dream--an early example perhaps of a comic dream sequence. A fairly enjoyable film with good performances by all. [TCM]

Monday, December 18, 2006


An early sound musical with a romantic farce plot, but without the farcical timing. The whole thing takes place among the rich set who are vacationing at the Breakers Beach Club. Pretty, young June Clyde is being pursued by goofy, boyish Arthur Lake (later to play Dagwood in the 40's Blondie movie series), but she's more concerned with her family members' affairs: her mother, trying to live like a flapper, is flirting with a younger playboy; her father, yearning for his Romeo days, is flirting with a society woman (Dorothy Revier); her sister (Sally Blane) is ending an affair with the possibly sinister Edmund Burns and trying to retrieve some compromising love letters from him. It turns out that Burns and Revier are professional crooks in cahoots trying to fleece the family. There are indiscreet room entrances and exits, a fake hold-up, a real shootout, and a happy ending. There are also occasional musical numbers which occur during rehearsals for the annual Orphan's Benefit being held at the club. The songs, co-authored by Oscar Levant, have fairly catchy, Gershwin-lite melodies. I didn't recognize many of the actors except Lake, but it's all light fun fairly well played. I was charmed by the use of the slang phrase "cake eater" here, though Wikipedia classifies it as an "ethnic slur" against people of an "affluent background" (since when is wealth an ethnicity?) [TCM]

Saturday, December 16, 2006


This film reunites director Douglas Sirk with three of the stars of his WRITTEN ON THE WIND (see below), though things are not nearly as much fun this time around. Based on an early novel by William Faulkner, this has something of the feel of one of those fast-paced films that Warner Brothers churned out in the 30's, with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Like those, this one is in black and white (a strange choice for a director known for his stunning use of color); unlike those, it has a slow pace and a downbeat ending. Set in the 30's, it features Robert Stack as a WWI fighter pilot who works in a traveling airplane show with his wife (Dorothy Malone) who also does parachute stunts, and their young son Jack (Christopher Olsen, real-life brother to Susan Olsen, best known as Cindy on "The Brady Bunch"). Traveling with them is Stack's engineer Jack Carson, who has long harbored a crush on Malone and, according to rumor, may be the young boy's father. In New Orleans for a multi-day show, the group winds up taken under the wing of reporter Rock Hudson, who thinks he's onto a good human interest story and lets the four of them stay in his small apartment. However, the paper's editor doesn't agree and fires Hudson, who finds himself drawn into the melodramatic problems of the quartet (and, of course, finds himself falling for Malone). During a pylon race in which two pilots race in figure eights around two towers, Stack's plane crashes and a young hotshot pilot (Troy Donahue) is killed. Stack, not injured, wants to get his hands on Donahue's plane, which just needs some repairs, and he sends Malone to the plane's owner (Robert Middleton), pimping her to get what he wants. Hudson, sickened by Stack's attitude, talks Middleton into the deal without Malone having to hawk her favors, but the next day, another crash has a lasting effect on all the central characters. The pylon races and ensuing crashes are exciting and well-filmed, but the chemistry that worked well in WIND is missing here. Hudson's character is more an interested observer and therefore comes off as more passive than we're used to Hudson being. One of the most memorable scenes is heavy-handed but effective: when Hudson and Malone kiss, a Mardi Gras partygoer wearing a death mask bursts into the room. William Schallert plays a fellow reporter. [TCM]

Friday, December 15, 2006


Great-looking Douglas Sirk melodrama, painted as usual in fall colors and highlighted with occasional over-the-top acting. I watched this on TCM with introductory commentary by Robert Osborne and Molly Haskell; Osborne was inclined to dismiss it as "kitsch," but Haskell treated it as high art. I'm somewhere in the middle: it is kitschy but involving, with good performances all around. The memorable opening, set on a blustery fall evening, has Robert Stack, drunk as a lord, peeling up in front of a mansion with a gun, ready to shoot someone. We then see, one by one, the house's occupants (Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, and Dorothy Malone) as they await Stack's arrival. A gun goes off but before we know the outcome, we flash back one year. Bacall is the new executive secretary at the Manhattan office of Hadley Oil. Hudson, a Hadley geologist and close friend of the founding family, finds her interesting but before he can sweep her off her feet, the headstrong, alcoholic Hadley heir (Stack) does it, and the two are married overnight. (I'm not the world's biggest Rock Hudson fan, but I must admit that the fact that she chooses the shambling weakling Stack over the solid, charming Hudson is, to me, one of the biggest unexplained mysteries of 50's cinema.) Meanwhile, the Hadley sister (Malone) has become a raging slut, hanging around dives, picking up working class men to help assuage the hurt she feels that Hudson, on whom she's had a lifelong crush, thinks of her like a kid sister. Stack and Hudson are used to being called out to the bars to break up her little affairs; at one point, we see them pay off horny pump jockey Grant Williams, whom Malone has tried to drag off to her bedroom.

A year later, Stack has become a good husband to Bacall, but when he finds out that he may be sterile, he sees himself as weak and starts falling off the wagon. Then the Hadley patriarch (Robert Keith), when confronted by evidence of Malone's promiscuity, goes upstairs to her room to confront her while she dances up a sexually frenzied storm, but has a fatal heart attack on the staircase. Then Bacall discovers she's pregnant, and Stack, egged on by Malone, decides that Hudson is the father (he isn't but the two are finding themselves attracted to each other), which leads to the confrontation we saw part of at the beginning of the film. Someone winds up dead, someone else winds up on trial for murder, and a courtroom confession provides the climax of the film. This, along with GIANT (also with Hudson) seems to have provided inspiration for the creators of those 80's TV soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. The lush, sexy, exaggerated hothouse atmosphere is fun, and Malone and Stack strike the right tone, going close to over the top with straight faces. Hudson is a strong anchor, and only Bacall seems a bit at sea, largely because her character is underwritten. The most famous scene, aside from the opening, is the death of Keith on the stairs, intercut with Malone's wild dance. Though she's unaware that he's on his way up (and out), the scene still feels a lot like the one in THE LITTLE FOXES in which Bette Davis lets her husband collapse on the stairs. The musical score is dramatic but absolutely fitting for the beautifully photographed action. Very enjoyable soapy drama. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


A story of the Norwegian resistance during WWII which is lacking in the excitement that its title and DVD cover seem to promise. Set in a seaside village, the story begins in 1939 during a wedding at which we meet the main characters: salt-of-the-earth widowed fisherman Paul Muni, visiting British admiral Cedric Hardwicke, and his son (Robert Coote) and daughter (Anna Lee). Muni and Lee are clearly sweet on each other, but the Brits head home and soon the Germans invade, despite Norway's official neutrality. Muni and his fellow villagers remain fairly passive in the face of the occupation, but after the Nazis burn books, confiscate radios, shoot people for curfew violations, and start teaching race hatred in the schools, Muni calls a meeting to form a resistance group, to change themselves, in his words, "from murdered Norwegians to murdering Norwegians." Muni discovers that the Gemans are building a secret air strip, most likely to widen their invasion plans, and he and a small group of men make a desperate attempt to escape across the sea to England to get help. Even though it turns out that one of the men on the boat has turned informer (and is dealt with harshly), they make it to England where Muni meets up with his old friends, and rekindles his would-be romance with Lee. In an unrealistic finale, Muni leads a group of British soldiers back to Norway to destroy the airstrip and, in a last-minute detour, return to the village to bring back his little daughter. Most of this is accomplished, but of course, someone will have to be sacrificed. The brief commando battle is fairly well staged, but only occupies a few minutes of screen time. Like a lot of other movies of the era, this feels a lot more like a Hollywood screenwriter's idea of the war rather than what was actually happening. That's not always a bad thing (see the Errol Flynn/Ronald Reagan DESPERATE JOURNEY), but unfortunately this movie has to compete directly against the much more interesting and seemingly more realistic Norwegian underground film EDGE OF DARKNESS (also with Flynn). Muni's not bad, especially early in the film, but he doesn't make a particularly striking action hero. Strong support is offered by Alexander Knox as a Nazi, Louis Jean Heydt as the informer, Rosemary DeCamp as Heydt's wife who must decide whether or not to betray him, and Ray Collins as one of the town's first victims of Nazi torture. Silent film superstar Lillian Gish, in her first film in almost 10 years, is wasted in the small role of Collins' wife. The movie is worth seeing for fans of the genre, but missing it wouldn't be a crime. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


This entertaining legal melodrama is based on a play, "The Mouthpiece," which was made into a movie in the 30's, but even if you haven't seen that film (and I have not), the plot will still seem familiar--it has echoes of a 1933 William Powell film called LAWYER MAN. George Brent is a district attorney who has just won a case which sends a young man (David Bruce) to the electric chair. Bruce continues to proclaim his innocence, and, moments before his scheduled execution, another man, a star witness for the prosecution, confesses to the murder. Brent tries to get word to the prison but it arrives too late to save the boy. Devastated by the mistake, Brent resigns his post and becomes a defense lawyer. At first, apparently out of a need for redemption, he barely scrapes by taking on cases for indigent clients, but soon gets wrapped up in the affairs of a gangland tough (Richard Barthelmess) and winds up making good money working for racketeers. His loyal secretary (Virginia Bruce) goes along with him but is ambivalent about his new career direction, and things come to a head when Brent's kid brother (William Lundigan) arrives fresh out of law school to intern with Brent. When Lundigan finds out that Brent is helping Barthelmess out of tax evasion charges, he steals some incriminating papers and gives them to the feds. The thugs, of course, don't take kindly to this and they kill one of their own (Marc Lawrence) in order to frame Lundigan for murder. Brent defends his brother in court, but he's found guilty and put on death row and Brent has to race against time to get the evidence that will clear Lundigan. This is a better than average second feature; it's paced well and has a cast stuffed with some of the great Warners B-movie regulars: Lundigan, Lawrence, Virginia Bruce, Brenda Marshall (as a secretary who falls for Lundigan, though that promising plotline leads nowhere), Alan Baxter (as a particularly slimy thug), John Litel, George Tobias, Louis Jean Heydt, John Ridgely, and William Hopper. Brent has a couple of nice trick scenes, one in which he drinks from a vial of poison to prove that his client couldn't be guilty of murder, and another in which he uses a planted newspaper story to get a confession out of someone. Lots of fun. [TCM]

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Sometimes I feel like a fairly jaded movie buff, in the sense that I know all the big names and all the big movies and there's nothing out there in left field to surprise me anymore. So when I do get surprised, I'm all the more ecstatic, but then I fear I'll risk making too much out of my discovery. I read about this film in the New York Times earlier this year on the occasion of its release on DVD. I'd never heard of the film or the director (Valerio Zurlini) but the review piqued my interest and I rented the disc from Netflix. It's turned out to be my favorite film of the year so far. Based on a well-known Italian novel, it's an almost Kafkaesque story about war and the military mindset which I would think still has relevance today. Jacques Perrin, newly graduated from military school, is gung ho about his appointment to the exotic outpost of Bastiano, but when he gets there, he finds an odd group of enervated officers and stoic soldiers who have nothing to do but watch the wasteland around them, in case of an invasion from the North Kingdom. The large, ruined battlements, as big as a small city, and the bleak, chilly surroundings (a windswept desert with snowy mountains in the distance) are lovely in an almost surreal way, but one can see how such isolation and inactivity would have a negative effect on the men. Everyone goes through the motions of military drills and secret passwords and ritualized dinners and some almost thrive in the atmosphere, but most of the men wind up slowly dispirited. Perrin is told by officer Max von Sydow that years ago, he had an almost mystical sighting of a Tartar rider on a white horse; it turned out to be a false alarm, but we spend the rest of the film waiting to see a white horse, and we're not disappointed. Perrin's enthusiasm wears out and the post doctor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) offers to get him a medical transfer, but Perrin decides not to use it--later, this becomes the basis for a Catch-22 plot twist when Perrin actually does become sick, and even though the troop force is being reduced, he can't get the transfer because he didn't use his previous one (and this is, of course, not the only darkly ironic twist the film takes). Some viewers might complain that this is one of those long foreign-language films in which nothing happens, but it's an episodic film in which lots of things happen, just not the kinds of things we expect in a war movie. The narrative covers many years, ending with Perrin as a sick old man, old before his time, perhaps, since we get no objective sense of how many years have passed. The ending is a bit predictable but still quite effective. Members of the fine cast include Helmut Griem (the decadent Baron from CABARET), Vittorio Gassman, Francisco Rabal, and Fernando Rey. The film was shot in a deserted town in Iran; I never figured out if the film's locale was supposed to be real or not, but given the almost allegorical tone, it doesn't matter. At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic, I strongly suggest this gem to anyone looking for something a little challenging. A memorable line: when Perrin says he's sure he's at Bastiano by mistake, he is told, "We're all somewhere by mistake." [DVD]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


This is probably Robert Bresson's most well-known and accessible film, but I found it rather slow going, filled with characters I couldn't care about one way or another, and that's a problem in a movie that seems to be about empathy. The movie spans the lifetime of a donkey in and around a village in France. As a "child," the donkey is a favorite of three children on a farm who give it a baptism and name it Balthazar. Over time, the donkey is bought by or traded between various people, sometimes treated with care and sometimes abused, and as he is passed back and forth, we see episodes in the lives of the various townspeople. Primary to the narrative is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who is present as a child at Balthazar's baptism. Years later, she falls in with a rough young lad named Gerard (Francois Lafarge) who uses the donkey to deliver bread; the boy mistreats both her and Balthazar. Worn down by years of work and abuse, the donkey lies down one day and seems ready to give up the ghost, but the town bum takes the animal and gives him a new career in a circus, tapping out the answers to math problems with his hooves. He seems happy or at least content here (to Bresson's credit, there are very few "Disney moments" in the movie where we called upon to interpret the animal's feelings), but eventually he winds up with Gerard again, being used in a smuggling ring. In the midst of one such operation, the gang is shot at by customs officers and Balthazar is wounded. In the movie's most memorable scene, the donkey wanders into a large open field and settles down to die as a flock of sheep move in to surround him in his last moments. It's a touching scene, but it does not spill over into sentimentality and it serves as a lovely ending.

My problem with the film is that I didn't care about any of the human characters. Marie is a sulky creature; granted, her options are limited (her only other romantic suitor is a friendly but rather passive childhood friend whom she rejects), but I still found it difficult to whip up much empathy for her. Gerard is a jerk who might well pass for sleazily charming in a small French village, but he's not really evil, or even very interesting, just a jerk. It's even stretching things to say that I cared much about Balthazar, and I'm someone who's too often a sucker for animals in a movie--I avoided this film for a long time because I was afraid it would be too manipulative. There are some very nice moments here, especially one in the circus where Bresson shows the various caged animals, including a tiger and a monkey, staring at Balthazar. Despite the possibility for a prime Disney moment here, it's not played for easy emotional interpretation, i.e., "Oh, how sad for these animals all penned up," or, "Oh, how happy for Balthazar to be among other animals now." I realize as I write this that I'm being contradictory: I like the lack of an easy empathetic response in this scene, but I am bothered by the lack of an easy empathetic response to the human characters. I guess I'm reacting positively to the fact the Bresson resists sloppy anthropomorphizing. It's a movie worth watching (especially the lovely print on the Criterion DVD) but I can't rate it as highly as the other Bressons I've enjoyed. [DVD]

Sunday, December 03, 2006


In the genre of wartime musical extravaganza, this film is both like and unlike its brethren. Like STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM and THOUSANDS CHEER, its main narrative thrust involves the putting together of an Army-related variety show. Unlike those films, it's not a star-driven spectacle; based on an actual Broadway revue with music by Irving Berlin, most of the performers in the variety show are real soldiers. There is a fictional framework, but most of the last third of the movie consists of songs and comedy bits featuring the GIs who appeared in the show on Broadway. The film begins during WWI, with dancer George Murphy (along with his buddies George Tobias and Charles Butterworth) putting on a soldier show, "Yip Yip Yaphank" (an actual Irving Berlin show from that era). The show's a hit, but the men are called overseas at the end of its first performance; Murphy and his friends survive the war, but Murphy gets a leg injury which leaves him with a permanent limp and ends his career as a dancer. Flash forward to the beginning of WWII and Murphy, now a theatrical producer, decides to put on another soldier show, with the assistance of Tobias, Butterworth, and his own son (Ronald Reagan) who's a lieutenant in the Army. What little dramatic tension there is comes from a subplot which has Reagan refusing to marry his girlfriend, Butterworth's daughter (Joan Leslie), until after the war; she decides this is weak reasoning and breaks off their engagement; will these cute kids get back together by the end of the film, when, almost certainly, Reagan will be sent overseas just like his father was? Otherwise, the rest of the movie consists of the plans to mount the show in New York, the successful premiere, and the national tour. The two most famous songs are "God Bless America" sung by Kate Smith herself, and "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" performed by Irving Berlin. Alan Hale is Murphy's commanding officer in WWI, who, despite his advanced age, is back in active duty for WWII and winds up in drag for "Ladies of the Chorus," Una Merkel is Butterworth's wife, and boxer (and Army volunteer) Joe Louis appears as himself. There are some fun numbers including "This is the Army, Mr. Jones" and "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." The comedy skits don't translate too well today, and part of the problem is that, although they are supposedly being performed in front of a live audience, there is no laughter or audience reaction of any kind, which throws off the performers' timing. One bit that was still funny to me involved GIs doing impressions of Lynn Fontanne, Charles Boyer, and other stars. There is a long, tedious section that amounts to a roll call of most of the soldiers who are called to New York to participate in the show, but otherwise, the movie moves along at a nice clip. The Warner Brothers film is apparently in the public domain and the disc I saw, from Delta, is in particularly bad shape, with faded colors and several splices. [DVD]

Saturday, December 02, 2006


An amusing show-biz comedy based on a Rodgers & Hart musical; virtually all the songs were jettisoned for this film version, so it's not really a musical, but it does have two elaborate dance/ballet sequences, one of which, the famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," clearly seems to have been an inspiration for the "Broadway Rhythm" number in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN several years later. The film opens in the 1920's as we meet the Dancing Dolans, a family vaudeville act, consisting of Dad (James Gleason), Mom (Queenie Smith), and our hero Phil (played as a youngster by Donald O'Connor), who has a crush on Vera, a Russian child dancer. One night, Little Phil accidentally takes his curtain call with his pants down around his feet and the audience loves it so much, they keep it in the act. Vera goes on to bigger and better things and years later, the adult Phil (Eddie Albert), tired of still dropping his trousers onstage, leaves vaudeville for "serious" music. He winds up collaborating with a down-and-out Russian composer (Leonid Kinskey) working with a struggling ballet company (headed by Alan Hale) which happens to include the grown-up Vera (Vera Zorina). Hale takes an instant dislike to Albert, and when an under-rehearsed Albert subs for a dancer during a ballet number called "Princess Zenobia," he completely fouls up the dance. The audience, thinking it was an intended burlesque, loves it and the number is a hit. Against his will, Hale is forced by his chief backer (Gloria Dickson) to put on an original ballet of Albert's (the abovementioned "Slaughter"), but he engineers a "hit" on Albert to be carried out by two gangsters during the climactic moment of the dance at the same moment that Albert's character shoots himself. This being a comedy, the killing is thwarted, the show is a success, and Albert and Zorina wind up happy together. Even though fans of the original show have every right to be disgruntled about the disemboweling of the score, this is still a clever and witty comedy with several one-liners that made me laugh out loud, such as Kinskey, after dispensing several nonsensical proverbs from the Old Country, admitting to Albert, "Sometimes I don't understand Russian proverbs myself." Zorina is a fine dancer (choreographed here by the great George Balanchine) though a little light in the acting department, but the rest of the cast is delightful, especially the charming Albert and the blustery Hale. Kinskey does a nice job with a somewhat larger than usual role, and other standouts include Frank McHugh as a stage manager, Berton Churchill as the hotel manager who threatens the troupe with eviction, and the always funny Erik Rhodes as a tempermental dancer. The atmospheric "Slaughter" number is tarnished a bit by a slapsticky ending, but overall this movie is a winner. [TCM]