Tuesday, January 30, 2007


In the early days of sound, Winnie Lightner was a popular comic actress and singer, and this film is one of her few starring vehicles which is still in circulation--though DANCING LADY, in which she has a supporting role, is readily available. Here, she's brassy and sarcastic, and while I enjoyed her performance, I can see why she may have been more palatable as a second fiddle. The movie fits squarely in the comic "Gold Digger" genre of the era, with Lightner and Irene Delroy playing two working-class gals tired of their jobs singing for patrons in a sheet music store (and tired of their boss, whom Lightner calls a "pansy"). After a flirtatious playboy lays slapstick waste to the store, the boss blames the girls and fires them. They get jobs at M. LeMaire's dress shop but then take their clothes allowance and run off to do some man hunting in Havana, sending LeMaire (Charles Judels) a farewell telegram signed, "The Gold Dust Twins." The two stay at a resort hotel and Delroy sets her sights on a Mr. Smith (Jack Whiting), an overnight millionaire success due to his invention of a popular soft drink (called Rush!). However, she accidentally winds up involved with a different Mr. Smith (John Davidson), an oily lothario pretending to be rich but actually looking for his own meal ticket. Delroy and Whiting meet accidentally and hit it off, but Lightner pushes her to keep persuing Davidson. Meanwhile, addled but wealthy Southern horseman Charles Butterworth chases after Lightner. In the midst of all this, Judels comes down to Havana in hot pursuit of his dresses. Things get set right for our heroines after the comic climax in which Judels completely trashes a hotel room. Much of the humor, both physical and verbal, still holds up. I very much enjoyed Butterworth's nervous deadpan shtick, fluttering around on his own little cloud, exclaiming things like, "My, I'm all atwitter" and "Oh, the pity of it!"--it's a variation on what Edward Everett Horton did in the later Astaire/Rogers movies. Each scene of slapstick destruction is very amusing. Whiting is boyish but bland; Davidson is more interesting but not as handsome. Lightner left movies just a few years later, and based on the evidence of this film, I'm sorry she did. She could have carved out a fine comic career along the lines of a Joan Blondell or a Zasu Pitts. Whom or what the title refers to, I'm not sure, as I only remember one party in the movie, and none of the main characters is present for it. "Get Happy," later a big hit for Judy Garland, is used as background music early in the movie. [TCM]

Saturday, January 27, 2007


This pleasant B-musical seems to have been an attempt by MGM to jump-start the careers of Virginia Weidler and Ray McDonald as juvenile stars to replace the "aging" Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Neither one went on to bigger and better things in the movies (Weidler's peak was actually a couple of years earlier playing Katharine Hepburn's kid sister in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY), but both actors are fine and the movie is more fun than its critical rep as a one-star bomb would suggest. Weidler's father, Henry O'Neill, is a composer (and ex-con sent up for vehicular manslaughter) who has had an entire score stolen by an unscrupulous Broadway producer. O'Neill tries to kill himself and is saved by a band of boys (including McDonald and Leo Gorcey) who strike up a friendship with Weidler. When they find out that O'Neill's stolen score is set to open on Broadway, the kids decide, in tried and true MGM fashion, to put on their own show with his songs by using neighborhood talent and corralling the opening night Broadway audience in to see it instead of the rip-off version. A janitor (Ben Carter) lets the kids become squatters in an abandoned cafe which had served as a Nazi Bund meeting place, and they later get some help from soft-hearted gangster Sheldon Leonard who uses his fleet of taxis to "steal" the Broadway audience. The last half-hour consists of some decent musical numbers staged by Sammy Lee, including "I Hate the Conga," which really feels like a Garland/Rooney number, but the climax, a sprawling social-consciousness number called "Ballad for Americans" staged by Busby Berekely, falls flat. Other cast members include Richard Hall and Beverly Hudson (who either sounded a lot like Garland or was dubbed by someone who did) as a particularly cute brother and sister act, Darla Hood from "Our Gang," and Margaret Dumont. I've liked Ray McDonald in other MGM films of the time (including DOWN IN SAN DIEGO and PRESENTING LILY MARS); he had a kind of boyish Ray Bolger/Donald O'Connor appeal and I'm sorry his career in films didn't last longer. Weidler is OK, but she just didn't seem to have the charisma needed to break out of the supporting juvenile mold. [TCM]

Thursday, January 25, 2007

RAW DEAL (1948)

Another excellent low-budget film noir from Anthony Mann (see below). Dennis O'Keefe is stewing away in a San Francisco prison, sent there for his part in a robbery which was masterminded by Raymond Burr, who kept all the money and set O'Keefe up to take the fall. Burr sends O'Keefe's moll, Claire Trevor, to break O'Keefe out of jail; Burr assumes that they won't actually get past the guards or the cops, but they do, which makes Burr nervous enough to send thug John Ireland out after them. Meanwhile, O'Keefe has stopped by the home of his social worker, Marsha Hunt, with whom he's gotten friendly, to get some help so he can face off with Burr, claim the money owed to him, and escape to Panama. Hunt tries to turn him in but he ends up taking her with them, setting up an occasionally tense on-the-road triangle. There's an incident at a mountain cabin involving a wife killer that has little to do with the plot except to add tension and show us that, for a crook, O'Keefe is basically an OK guy. Ireland catches up to them one night at a beachfront fishing supply store (a nicely atmospheric building) and after O'Keefe is double crossed by the store owner, fierce fisticuffs and gunplay ensue and Hunt saves O'Keefe's life. He sends her away so she won't get in any more trouble, but Burr's men snag her and get the message to Trevor that they'll torture her if he doesn't come in from the cold, so to speak, on Burr's terms. Trevor is torn: she wants O'Keefe for herself, but also realizes that Hunt is in a jam not of her own making. The well played finale, on fog-shrouded Corkscrew Alley, has violent fighting, a dangerous fire and excellent cinematography. This movie is a keeper all around, from the solid acting, especially from O'Keefe, Trevor, and Burr, to its shadowy look (thanks largely to cinematographer John Alton), to the tense tone which is kept up throughout. The film includes a famous shot of Burr throwing a flaming dessert dish in the face of a young woman who accidentally splashed a drink on him. Well worth seeing, and a must for noir fans. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

T-MEN (1947)

So many of the best film noirs [yeah, it should be films noir, but to me, the phrase "film noir" is a singular noun] were B-films, and there must be a reason for that; maybe the fact that noirs, in both looks and tone, were pretty much the exact opposite of the kinds of movies mainstream Hollywood was producing, and that shadows and darkness could cover up cheap sets. At any rate, this movie from the Poverty Row unit Eagle-Lion is definitely among the top rank of noirs, though it's been largely unsung until its recent release on DVD. Directed by Anthony Mann just after RAILROADED, this documentary-style film (complete with voice-over narration) follows two Treasury agents (Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder) on assignment to crack a major West Coast counterfeiting ring. The two create personas as the last free members of a jailed Detroit gang and they spend some time setting up their backstories by getting in good with a slimy thug named Vantucci (Anton Kosta, doing a great job creating a memorable character in just a few scenes) before heading out to Los Angeles. Armed with almost perfect plates (the work of an arrested crook), they're looking to infiltrate the gang that is using almost perfect paper for their counterfeit cast. Their first contact is a mostly washed-up guy known as the Schemer (Wallace Ford, also giving an excellent, fleshed-out performance) who leads them to a bunch of middlemen (including one woman). The agents make some progress to a point, until their covers almost gets blown and they must race against time when they realize that the gang's chief engraver can identify their plates. The acting here is quite good all around from leads to bits, including June Lockhart in a brief scene as Ryder's wife who, realizing that Ryder is incognito, tries to perform damage control when a family friend blithely chats him up in front of the thugs. Mann does wonders with the shadowy noir look, aided by cinematographer John Alton, using contrasting darkness and light, odd angles, and deep focus; one standout scene has a character facing death in a steamroom. Overall, this may be the least B-looking B-movie I've ever seen. Highly recommended. Though Mann was best known for noirs and westerns, he did a wide assortment of films (THE GLENN MILLER STORY, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) later for bigger studios. [DVD]

Sunday, January 21, 2007


This second feature is worth seeing for its novelty, based as it is on a popular radio talk show of the 40's of the same name, hosted by Tom Breneman. The show itself, which I've never heard, seems to have been a lot like Art Linkletter's House Party on TV in the 50's, with music, interviews, and audience chat. The movie uses the show as a focal point for four narrative threads. The main story concerns a budding post-war romance between Minnesota girl Bonita Granville and Minnesota soldier Edward Ryan. They meet cute at the radio broadcast, done during breakfast at Breneman's restaurant and night club; she's been waiting since the end of the war to hear from her fiance, but Ryan happens to know that the cad is now married to someone else. The finale is all about Breneman getting the cops involved in a scheme to get the two together. The other plotlines also concern audience members at the show. Zasu Pitts has worn a crazy hat, because a regular part of the show has Breneman picking the craziest hat in the room and donning it, but gossip columnist Hedda Hopper upstages her, so much so that Spike Jones and his band perform a song about her hats. Beulah Bondi is an old lady who wins the "oldest audience member" award, gets involved in a car accident outside the restaurant, and seems to be on death's door until Breneman enlists her in his plan to get the lovebirds together. In the oddest plotline, Billie Burke is a housewife who goes to the show while her husband (Raymond Walburn) sets up a rendezvous with a couple of sweet young things. A comedy of errors ensues (Walburn is the one who almost hits Bondi) but by the time Burke and Walburn wind up together again, I didn't care about them at all. The radio show segment is the best part of the film; the rest, despite being comedic, all feels a bit gloomy, and the low budget is obvious, though the actors are all fine, especially Bondi. Nat King Cole's trio gets a couple of low-key numbers. [DVD]

Friday, January 19, 2007


A cute romantic comedy/mystery, not as gloriously screwball as the early Thin Man movies, but fun, with an effective star pairing in Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur. McCrea is a well-known crime reporter, hired by editor Thomas Mitchell, who wants him to find a big story to sell lots of papers ("If you can involve a woman and a haunted castle...," says Mitchell). McCrea, who is sure that a supposedly dead jewel thief named Barlea is behind a recent rash of jewel thefts, sees himself as a dispassionate observer who never lets emotion get the better of him. One evening, Arthur, a down-on-her-luck woman, robs him in a desperate attempt to get a makeover so she'll look good when she meets her young daughter, whom she hasn't seen in years. McCrea's defenses are weakened and he not only helps her out, he accompanies her to the reunion. I won't say exactly what happens then, but most astute viewers will have guessed that things are not what they seem, and in fact Arthur is an actress who is helping a gang of reporters pull a prank on McCrea to burst his heartless rep. He's a good sport, however, and he hits it off with Arthur, and with the producer (Reginald Owen) of a play she's in, not realizing that Owen is actually Barlea and is using the production of the play (a WWI drama with lots of battlefield noise) as a cover to have his men tunnel into the bank next door to get away with a priceless diamond. McCrea makes a very precise and public prediction about when the bank will be robbed, and he's right, but Owen cancels the plan, leaving McCrea disgraced and jobless. The theft does eventually get pulled, and as this is a comedy, McCrea also gets the upper hand, in a somewhat roundabout way. There are some plot holes here and there, but the movie works remarkably well, with its fun twists and turns, and solid acting by all. Not to diminish the leads, who have good chemistry, but Owen steals the show with his sly performance. An entertaining find from the unplumbed depths of the Columbia Pictures catalog which Turner Classic Movies seems to have licensed (thank goodness!) at least temporarily. If they run it again, catch it! [TCM]

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


An above-average western with a detective movie slant, given A-film treatment (including lovely Technicolor) by Paramount. Alan Ladd is the title character, a railroad cop who is back in his old frontier home town on the trail of the notorious Barton brothers. In a big shoot-'em-up, Ladd guns one down, but is seriously wounded by the surviving brother (Murvyn Vye), who escapes but remains in hiding nearby. Ladd is taken care of by his old friend, railroad worker Robert Preston, and his wife, Brenda Marshall, who was an old flame of Ladd's. On the surface, Ladd's homecoming is just peachy for all, but Marshall lets Ladd know that Preston has changed since he's been friendly with shady rancher Donald Crisp. Ladd wonders how Preston can afford the recent expansion of his ranch on a railroad worker's pay, and soon we find out that Preston and Crisp are in cahoots with Vye in carrying out train lootings. When Preston is caught by the railroad boss carting away too much undamaged booty from an accident scene, he's fired; he gets his revenge (with some help from Crisp's men) by embarking on a series of nighttime derailments and thefts. Ladd lets Preston know that he knows what's going on and gives him a chance to disentangle himself from Crisp's influence, but Preston doesn't take it, sealing his fate in a final showdown. The actors are all good here; Ladd makes for a particularly laconic gunslinger, reminding me a bit of Jack Beutel in THE OUTLAW (except Ladd has more talent and personality); Preston has energy to spare as a nice guy gone bad, who seems to still have a genuine affection for his old buddy; Marshall, in one of her last starring roles before retiring at the age of 35, is good if a bit underused. A strong supporting cast includes William Demerest and Fay Holden (Andy Hardy's mom) as wise old friends of Ladd's, Will Wright as an ineffective sheriff, John Eldredge as the unlikable railroad boss, and Frank Faylen, completely unrecognizable under a grotesque blond wig as Crisp's chief (and very creepy) gunman. [TCM]

Monday, January 15, 2007


Despite starring two of MGM's greatest musical stars, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, this is a generally underrated musical, perhaps because Garland was not at her energetic peak (this was her last film for the studio), perhaps because the "Hey, let's put on a show in the barn" storyline was pretty worn by 1950, perhaps because there are no really memorable melodies here (except, of course, for the tacked-on finale, "Get Happy," which is a prime Garland career highlight). Still, this movie is great fun, and as far as I'm concerned, it shows Gene Kelly at his sexiest. The movie begins with Garland looking frumpy as the keeper of a family farm which is falling on hard times; she hasn't been able to pay her workers, so they have all deserted her except longtime cook Marjorie Main. Garland has been promised in marriage to allergy-ridden doofus Eddie Bracken, son of the general store manager (Ray Collins), though clearly she does not love him. One of the reasons Garland stayed with the farm was to raise money to put her sister (Gloria DeHaven) through art school, but when Sis shows up, it turns out she's flunked out and joined up with a troupe of actors, led by Gene Kelly, who have shown up out of the blue to take over the farm for the summer as a rehearsal space for a prospective Broadway show. Garland is unhappy about hosting the large group of young people, but finally agrees as long as they all put in their share of work around the farm each day. Things start out well, and there's a lot of funny business involving the kids learning how to do things like milk the cows and collect the eggs, but soon Phil Silvers messes up by wrecking the brand new tractor that Garland had finagled out of Bracken's father. Garland is heartbroken and ready to kick everyone out, but Kelly sells his own station wagon to buy her a new tractor, and she lets them all stay. Slowly, Garland finds herself charmed by Kelly, and vice versa, and when DeHaven decides she's too good for the troupe and leaves for a better prospect, Kelly talks Garland into taking over her role. There are more complications, involving Bracken's jealousy and DeHaven's sudden return, but it all works out to our satisfaction, climaxing with Garland's great "Get Happy" number.

I'll get rid of the liabilities first, and there are really only two. The lesser one is that it is clear that Garland is not at the top of her game--she was going through a rough patch, physically and emotionally--but she still has plenty of charisma and voice, and is perfectly acceptable in the role of the pragmatic farmer who is converted to the more whimsical charms of the theatrical life. The real stinker here is Silvers, whose heavy-handed comic style sinks every scene he's in. Luckily, the film's strengths outweigh its weaknesses. The group dance numbers are well staged, and all of Kelly's dances are great fun, especially his athletic "Dig for Your Dinner" and the later dance he appears to improvise as inspired by a squeaky stage floorboard. Overall, Kelly was better in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but here, he's as handsome and sexy as he gets; even in a song he does in a silly blond hillbilly wig and blacked-out teeth, he's hot. Garland's opening number, "Howdy Neighbor," sung as she's running errands on a tractor, is corny but has grown on me through repeated viewings. Bracken is fun, as always, and other support comes from Hans Conreid as the "name" star who has agreed to do the show and Carlton Carpenter as a gangly dancer. Lots of fun, though when they invent software that will allow us to replace performers in movies, I'll snuff out Silvers and replace him with, oh, Mickey Rooney or Donald O'Connor, or even Carlton Carpenter. [DVD]

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Snappy little B-film from Warners, worth seeing for its interesting if not totally successful pairing of handsome tough guy Lyle Talbot, who pretty much remained a B-level star, and the somewhat classier Mary Astor who is more often associated with A-level work. The narrative breaks down into three acts. Talbot, a race car mechanic who aspires to be a champion driver, works for Henry Kolker and has the hots for his boss's daughter (Astor), a race car designer. Astor dates slimy driver Gavin Gordon, though she clearly has a hankering for Talbot, and after a confrontation in which Talbot is egged on to punch Gordon out, Kolker feels he has no choice but to fire him. In Act 2, Talbot, now a full-fledged driver, ends up in a race against Gordon, who along with his mechanic (Bradley Page), has rigged up a sharp spear-end bolt intended to slash the tires of any car that gets too close to him--thank you, Fisher L. Forrest on IMDb, for pointing out the "Ben-Hur" chariot race parallel! During the race, however, the use of the implement backfires and Gordon's car wipes out, resulting in his death. Page removes the incriminating evidence and Talbot, found guilty of setting out to kill Gordon, is sent to jail. Astor and some sidekicks find the missing evidence and get the governor to pardon Talbot, but the very moment that Astor delivers the pardon, Talbot breaks out of jail (with the help of his sidekick Roscoe Karns) and heads to Brazil to start a racing career under the name Bulldog Banks. In the bizarrely improbable Act 3, Astor recognizes his fake name (taken from a silly song he used to sing) and sends him a message asking him to come back to the States to drive her car in an important race. He does, flying a biplane right onto the racetrack grounds in order to drive Astor's car to victory. Of course, Page is arrested, Talbot is cleared, and Astor gets her guy, all in the last two minutes. There's not much chemistry between the leads, but since they don't have a lot of scenes together, that's OK; individually, they're fine. An odd running joke about Karns dating an imaginary woman named Maggie climaxes when he actually does meet cute with a lady named Maggie (Mary Treen). Juvenile star Frankie Darro had passed out of adolescence by this time and is starting to lose his spunky charm and youthful looks, but he does a nice job as a midget-car racer who idolizes Talbot and helps to clear his name. Black comic actor Clarence Muse has a very short bit as a sidekick to the sidekick (Karns), but the scene feels out of place, perhaps indicating that his role was shortened in editing (the same, perhaps, with Mary Treen). [TCM]

Friday, January 12, 2007


I admire the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, even though I haven't had the opportunity to write about many of their films on my blog (see I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING and THE 49TH PARALLEL). This film, inspired loosely by Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," was difficult to see until Criterion issued it on DVD this year. Like most of their films, it is hard to categorize, and it takes its own sweet time getting going, but it is well worth a little extra time and effort on the part of the viewer. The film opens with a little cinematic slight-of-hand: with a narrator talking about Chaucer's 14th century pilgrims, we see such a group on its merry way to the Canterbury Cathedral. Then, in a jump-cut which surely influenced Stanley Kubrick's similar shot in 2001, a soaring hawk, released by one of the pilgrims, becomes a bomber and suddenly we're in the present day, that is, the middle of WWII. The rest of the film covers a sort of pilgrimage taken by three people who are thrown together by circumstance in the small village of Chillingbourne, a few miles from Canterbury. One, an American sergeant (John Sweet) from a small town in Oregon, is heading to Canterbury at the end of his leave to meet up with a buddy and he mistakenly gets off the train one stop too early. A British sergeant (Dennis Price) is likewise on his way to Canterbury to be shipped out for a D-Day-like operation. A young woman from London (Sheila Sim) who has joined the Women's Land Army has been assigned to Chillingbourne to work for a local magistrate (Eric Portman). The three meet up late one night at the train station and as they head to Town Hall (to register and to find lodging) Sim is attacked in the dark by a figure who dumps glue in her hair. They discover that several women have been attacked by the Glue Man and when Sim suspects that the attacker may be her future employer, the two men agree to stay the weekend in the village and play detective with Sim.

The middle of the film, concerned with the "sleuthing," meanders quite a bit and is clearly more about development of characters and themes, primarily the ways in which the urban British woman and the hayseed American boy are like and unlike the villagers, but also about war and loss (Sim's soldier finace has been reported missing, and Sweet's girlfriend back home has quit sending him letters). Price's story is less melodramatic, but also tied up in loss: in his civilian life, he studied to be a church organist, but wound up playing organ in a movie theatre, and he expresses some frustration over that turn of events. Sim and Portman have a nice bonding moment in a field, and eventually, the three do put together enough evidence to confirm that Portman is indeed the Glue Man (his rationale is whimsical and a little sad). Finally, all four wind up on the train to Canterbury where all of them find redemption of sorts. It seems so little is at stake, but the finale is moving and effective. The film feels very modern with its rambling narrative, leisurely pace, and occasionally striking location phototography. And there is a startling line of dialogue late in the film in which Sweet and his buddy compare the British yen for tea to a habit for marijuana. Character actors Esmond Knight, Charles Hawtrey, and Freda Jackson have small roles. A delightful discovery, which TCM has scheduled this month. [DVD]

Monday, January 08, 2007


This rare oddity was aired last year on Turner Classic as part of its "Race and Hollywood" series. Unfortunately, the most interesting thing about the movie is that it was written by famed poet Langston Hughes and politically active actor Clarence Muse, though as film critic Donald Bogle noted before TCM's showing, the script was most likely reworked by other hands before it was actually shot. The setting is a pre-Civil War plantation (owned by the kindly Ralph Morgan) where all the slaves are healthy and happy as they sing and dance their ways through their chores. Morgan's lawyer (Edwin Maxwell) tells him he's spending too much money on keeping the slave quarters comfortable, but Morgan ignores his advice. One day, while out with his young son (Bobby Breen) and house slave Uncle Caton (Muse) to watch the slaves dance and sing as they cut the last of the sugar cane, Morgan loses control of his horse and is killed. The wicked lawyer, as the executor of the estate, becomes a cruel master, whipping the slaves (as Morgan never did) and soon deciding to sell off most of them in order to finance his own travels. Breen talks Muse into running away with him to New Orleans in order to get Muse on a riverboat to escape being sold, and Breen has the bright idea of having Muse dress up as a deaf and dumb white woman (his face covered by a veil). The owner of a Cajun inn (Alan Mowbray) befriends Breen and winds up helping him expose Maxwell, and a judge (Robert Grieg) is called in to stop the slave auction in the nick of time. The movie, which was released by RKO, has the low budget look of a Poverty Row race movie, aimed at a black audience, but the black characters are slighted, and what little character development there is occurs only among the white characters. The selling point of the film was 12-year-old Breen, a moderately famous boy soprano, and he's not bad, though a scene in which he sings "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" at a slave meeting is awkward at best. Grieg makes the most of his few minutes as a gluttonous judge with gout. Not only do the sets look cheap, but despite the existence of at least two dance numbers, not much money could have been spent on choreography. Film buffs may recognize Lillian Yarbo, who played maids in some 40 movies during the 40's, and Charles Middleton, most famous as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon movies. [TCM]

Sunday, January 07, 2007


A convoluted and generally unpleasant tropics melodrama. The story reminded me a bit of the 1931 film SAFE IN HELL, with its tarnished heroine having to undergo a lot of undeserved misery without much redemption, though this one has an absurdly sudden happy ending (albeit one that plays out off screen). Helen Twelvetrees is Flo, a chorus girl who has been working at a nightclub in Panama. Her boss (Maude Eburne, who is unfortunately made up to look a bit like a drag queen) needs to cut expenses and fires all the girls, most of whom are then stranded in Panama without the money to get back to New York. Twelvetrees hangs around the bar getting men to buy drinks, waiting for her boyfriend, aerial photographer Robert Armstrong, to come and take her away, but she gets caught trying to steal a big chunk of money from drunken rough and tumble engineer Charles Bickford. When her roomie runs off with the cash, Bickford demands that she accompany him back to his isolated home in the jungle where he's working on some new method for getting oil out of the jungle. He sets her up as his housekeeper to work off her debt, but one night, he drunkenly approaches her with rape in his eyes, and he's interrupted only by the arrival of Armstrong, who asks to spend the night so he can fix his disabled plane in the morning. It turns out that Armstrong has come searching for Twelvetrees and together they plot an escape, but not everything is as it seems: Armstrong has a hidden agenda and Bickford isn't quite as evil as we think he is. The happy ending is wildly unbelievable, and is hurt by the fact that none of the main characters is in the least likeable: Twelvetrees is a dispirited lump for the entire film, Bickford is a colorless thug (until the last five minutes), and Armstrong, who gives the best performance in the film, is a cipher. Eburne might have been fun, but she's not given much to do. There is some interesting cinematography now and then, but I can't really recommend this one. [TCM]

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Solid film noir from Poverty Row studio PRC, directed by Anthony Mann early in his career. In the first few minutes, the sparseness of the sets betrays the ultra-low budget, but once the movie gets going, it winds up looking and feeling as good as any RKO or Warners B-film of the era. The set-up: bad girl Jane Randolph manages a beauty shop which has gambling going in the back room. One night, she surreptitiously lets in a couple of masked robbers (one of them being her boyfriend John Ireland) to pull off a heist, but another beautician (Peggy Converse) screams loud enough to attract a cop; the cop shoots the other robber (Keefe Brasselle), wounding him seriously, and Ireland kills the cop. Ireland gets Brasselle, with his dying breath, to implicate young Ed Kelly, whose laundry truck they stole for the heist, as the other gunman. Kelly's sister (Sheila Ryan) insists that her brother is innocent; at first, straight-arrow cop Hugh Beaumont doesn't believe her, but as he investigates, Ireland looks more and more suspicious, and soon Ryan is pulling off her own undercover investigation, cozying up to Ireland and his gang. Feeling the heat, Ireland starts bumping off those who he thinks might rat on him, and the fact that they're women doesn't bother him in the least. Naturally, Ryan winds up in hot water; will Beaumont be able to save her and clear the kid? Well, of course he will, but the predictability of the plotline isn't a liability here. Beaumont and Ryan make an OK couple, if a bit stiff, but the acting honors belong to the vicious Ireland and to Randolph, a B-movie actress best known as the mistress who's menaced by the unseen leopard in CAT PEOPLE. She's good in every scene, including a memorable, furniture-tumbling "catfight" with Ryan. The print which aired on Turner Classic is in remarkable shape considering it never belonged the library of a major studio; if only other PRC films (like DETOUR) would show up in such good shape. [TCM]

Monday, January 01, 2007


I was excited to finally see this rare comedy-fantasy, despite the fact that it has not been treated well by the few critics who bother to mention it--Leonard Maltin's guide gives it 2 stars but calls it an "incredibly bad comedy." I found it quite entertaining, despite its simplistic and retrograde view of gender politics, though I imagine in its day, it was considered rather risque. Based on a novel by Thorne Smith, who wrote some interesting contemporary fantasy in the 20's and 30's, including the novels that became the TOPPER movies, the high-concept plot is easy to summarize: a husband and wife switch bodies to learn the "grass is always greener" lesson. John Hubbard is an advertising executive who is also a physical fitness buff, making his staff engage in calisthenics with him every morning and getting tossed about in his office by a jujitsu instructor. Carole Landis is his wife who lives a seemingly pampered penthouse life filled with shopping and social engagements. The two bicker constantly, with the latest problem being Dopey, Hubbard's huge Doberman, which Landis wants out of the house. After an argument in which each expresses the wish to live the "easy" life of the other, a Hindu bust in their bedroom comes to life and grants them their wish. The next morning, Hubbard wakes up in his wife's body and Landis wakes up in his body--conveyed by having Hubbard's voice come out of Landis' body and vice versa. This means lots of cheap laughs watching Hubbard prance around, hand on hip, like the worst gay stereotype ever. Yes, it's potentially offensive, but I did find it funny for the most part, and at times, Hubbard generates a comic energy similar to that worked up by Steve Martin when he's channeling Lily Tomlin in ALL OF ME. Landis has a harder time acting butch, not having as many obvious mannerisms to work with. The plot turns into a "Bewitched" episode, with wife-as-husband messing up a major account and husband-as-wife making enemies out of the other executive's wives. When the characters learn that Landis is pregnant, all the mischief is explained away by that, and the executives and their wives learn lessons about their conduct of life just as Hubbard and Landis do. [SPOILER!!] The kicker in the end, when the bust switches them back to normal, is that Hubbard's body is apparently now carrying the baby.

Hubbard, a B-actor who looks a little like Ray Milland, is very good; Landis is less so, but she's still satisfactory. The real gem here is the strong supporting cast. The standouts are Adolphe Menjou and William Gargan as fellow ad execs. Menjou is confident and in control; Gargan, the silent partner, is a bit of a dolt (reminding me at times of Gene Wilder playing Will's boss on "Will & Grace"). Both display fine comic timing, especially in a downright surreal scene in which the two of them destroy a radio that won't stop broadcasting until the very last tube is smashed. Donald Meek is fun as the loyal butler who is left in a constant state of befuddlement by the switched pair; Marjorie Main is a maid, and Mary Astor and Joyce Compton are the executive wives. The scene that caused my jaw to drop the most was a Franklin Pangborn cameo in which he plays a client named Pingboom who comes to see Hubbard while his wife is inhabiting his body. When it seems like Hubbard is flirting with him, Pangborn doesn't seem startled and indeed welcomes it. The scene is fairly subtle but quite funny. Overall, a delightful movie which Turner Classic has rescued from obscurity. Now if only someone would give it a DVD release. [TCM]