Thursday, March 29, 2007


The plot of this early talkie romantic comedy reminds me of Mrs. Doubtfire crossed with Cinderella. Ann Harding, the wallflower daughter of O. P Heggie and Louise Closser Hale, has a crush on a friend of the family, famous barrister Leslie Howard, but of course he never notices her, so to be close to him she disguises herself as a lower-class nanny (complete with a Cockney accent) and applies for a job as governess to Howard's little boy (we're told his wife killed herself years ago). Howard lives in a spacious apartment in an old building called the Temple, in which all comings and goings are strictly observed by landlords Dudley Digges and Alison Skipworth. Skipworth in particular is a stickler for upright behavior and, since Howard's governess will be living in the apartment, Harding makes herself look as dowdy as she can to ensure getting the job. She's a good governess and she manages to keep up her double life, occasionally making appearances at her family's house, until an artist friend of Howard's (Robert Williams) recognizes her while she's sitting for a portrait. Of course, Howard soon wises up as well and falls for her, but then we find out that Howard's wife isn't dead, just a wicked woman who ran off, and she returns to put a kink in their romantic plans. Up to this point, the film is fun, but once Harding decides to accept a marriage proposal from Williams, the writers don't seem to know how to get things back in order, and the denoument is handled in a rushed, inept fashion. The leads are fine, though it's difficult to buy the vivacious Harding as an "ugly duckling" daughter in the beginning. Skipworth and Digges are also very good, and the large, well appointed sets are impressive. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Fairly routine Warners crime melodrama which wastes the talents of Bette Davis. She plays a drugstore clerk, engaged to store owner Charles Farrell. When some mobsters try to force Farrell to carry their beer (back in the good old days when, I guess, you could belly up to the drugstore fountain for a beer), he rebels and refuses to do it, but he does make up an effective headache powder in the backroom for mob boss Ricardo Cortez. Cortez, who wants out of the beer racket anyway, gets the idea to have Farrell make up bootleg versions of real drugstore items and sell them to local businesses under the names of the legitimate products. In order to get the money to marry Davis, Farrell agrees and for a while things work out for everyone until Cortez's girl (Glenda Farrell) gets pissed at Cortez's infidelity and snitches to Henry O'Neill, the head of an company that makes an antiseptic that Farrell is copying. O'Neill takes Cortez to court, though he offers not to go after Farrell if he quits. He tries to, but Cortez blackmails him into staying around to work on some fake digitalis, a heart medicine. Unfortunately, a doctor winds up using the bad medicine on the pregnant Davis and she has a miscarriage and almost dies. Farrell goes gunning for Cortez, but O'Neill, angry that Cortez's bootlegging is hurting the product that he invented, is also on the loose with a gun. The climax occurs in a big lab with a huge vat of acid, and course one of the strictest Hollywood conventions is that whenever there's a vat of acid in sight, sooner or later, someone's gonna fall into it. Farrell is wooden as hell, leaving Davis a bit at sea; Richard Barthelmess was similarly bad in CABIN IN THE COTTON, but Davis had more to work with in that film and she could overcome the liability of a weak leading man. Other cast members include Samuel S. Hinds and Allen Jenkins, and there's a nice catfight scene between the always reliable Glenda Farrell and Renee Whitney, playing Cortez's floozy on the side. [TCM]

Saturday, March 24, 2007


James Whale directed this first film version of Robert Sherwood's play, a WWI romantic melodrama about a soldier and a prostitute. The more famous 1940 version with Vivien Leigh (in which her livelihood, due to the Production Code, is presented rather obscurely) has been in constant circulation, but this one has been difficult to find until Warners released it on DVD as part of its first Forbidden Hollywood set. Given how long I've waited to see this, it was a bit of a disappointment. We first see Mae Clarke, a chorus girl, on stage in the closing night of a play. She turns down the chance to do another show, as she has just received a fox stole from an admirer and isn't worried about her immediate future. Two years later, however, she has fallen on hard times and makes a living as a prostitute, as does her buddy Doris Lloyd. One night as she's making her usual nighttime visit to Waterloo Bridge, an air raid occurs and she and a young American soldier (Douglass Montgomery, billed as Kent Douglass) help an older woman find shelter. The two hit it off and go back to her shabby apartment for conversation; Montgomery doesn't pick up on her profession and when he finds out that she is behind on her rent, he offers to pay it for her. She refuses and sends him away to go back into the night, but the next morning, the smitten soldier returns with flowers and, because he's about to be sent back to the front, a marriage proposal. Lloyd tries to talk her into taking it, but Clarke knows he's a naive kid and doesn't want to ruin his life. Nevertheless, she agrees to take a motor trip to the country with him and he sweeps her off to meet his well-to-do family at their country estate. His mother realizes what she is and has a brutally honest heart-to-heart talk with her in which she asks Clarke not to marry him. When she sneaks back to London, he follows and finds out about her occupation from the landlady (Ethel Griffes). Undeterred, he pays her rent, and just before he has to ship out, he finds her back on Waterloo Bridge. The sad ending is different in its specifics from the ending of the 1940 remake, but the effect is similar. Clarke is fine in the lead; she is best known in movie lore as the woman who gets a grapefruit in her face from James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, but most film fans probably know her better as Dr. Frankenstein's wife in Whale's 1932 FRANKENSTEIN. Montgomery is fresh-faced and well-scrubbed, and at first seems too lightweight, but he grows into the part (or I got used to him). Bette Davis has a very small part as Clarke's sister, and Fredrick Kerr is amusing as Montgomery's aged and mostly deaf stepfather. I'm quite happy to have seen this version, but I admit it makes me want to revisit the Vivien Leigh version, which is less honest but glossier and sudsier. [DVD]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Impressive Gothic thriller directed by Fritz Lang for B-studio Republic Pictures. The low budget means limited and rather stagy-looking sets, but this adds to the gloomy atmosphere. The opening scene of foreshadowing is obvious but effective: a chatty housekeeper is repelled by the carcass of a dead animal that keeps floating back and forth along the river, in which all manner of debris is constantly returning to the surface. Her boss, Louis Hayward, a struggling writer with one unsuccessful novel to his credit, tells her not to worry about it, but we know that the river which cannot keep its secrets will play an important role in the narrative. Hayward is married to Jane Wyatt, pleasant but unexciting, and is able to keep writing because his crippled brother, Lee Bowman, gave up much of his share of the family inheritance to Hayward--partly because he's secretly in love with Wyatt. At dusk one day, while his wife is out, Hayward puts the moves on their young maid (Dorothy Patrick), and when she resists and starts to scream, he strangles her to death. Bowman arrives and agrees to help Hayward deposit the body in the river (has he already forgotten the first scene?). When the maid's family reports her disappearance, Hayward implies that she was a thief and a hussy; the resulting publicity kick-starts sales of his book and gives him inspiration for a new novel. However, Hayward's psychological state suffers; as he was dumping the maid's body, Hayward saw a glinting fish leap into the air, and so the sight of any light flashing off of an object sets him off. He manages to keep things together for a while, but when the maid's body is found, both Hayward and Bowman fall under suspicion leading to the slow unraveling of their cover story, and to the unraveling of Hayward's mind. The acting is as good as it needs to be--Wyatt is a bit of a weak link, but she doesn't really have much to do. Carl Switzer (Alfalfa from Our Gang) and Kathleen Freeman have small bits, and Jody Gilbert and Anne Shoemaker steal a brief scene in court as two gossipy maids, but it's the visuals here that truly steal the show. The dark, gloomy sets and the beautifully composed shots of the rooms filled with shadows and curtains billowing in the wind are exquisite, and help to make the climax very effective. This film was once thought lost, and the print on Kino's DVD isn't as sharp and clean as it could be, but it's not bad, and it's definitely worth seeing. [DVD]

Sunday, March 18, 2007


A Hollywood version of Jules Verne's adventure tale "Michael Strogoff" which uses of lots of footage from a German movie based on the same book, made the year before with the same leading man. Anton Walbrook, best known as the ballet impresario in THE RED SHOES, plays Strogoff, the soldier of the title, who is employed by Tsar Alexander II as a courier to relay important military plans to troops in Omsk who are under siege by the Tartars. He travels undercover by train where he gets tangled up with two women, one a spy (Margot Grahame) and the other a more traditional love interest (Elizabeth Allan). Also present are two bumbling reporters (Eric Blore and Edward Brophy) who wander in and out of the narrative. The particularly nasty villain is Tartar chieftain Akim Tamiroff, who gets to chew lots of scenery, especially in a scene in which he tortures Walbrook. Fay Bainter is Walbrook's mother, who lives in a village en route to Omsk. He hasn't seen her in years, but he is instructed to ignore her for the sake of his mission. At one point, she recognizes him and almost gives the game away. Bainter and Grahame are quite fine; Allan has little to do, but looks nice; despite the presence of Blore, the comic relief is tiresome. Most of the battle scenes are from the German film, known in English as THE CZAR'S COURIER, and the disconnect between those impressive, interestingly photographed scenes and the more mundane RKO shots is jarring at times. If I'm not mistaken, the Borodin melody used as the basis for the Kismet song "Stranger in Paradise" provides the backdrop for a brief dance number. The movie drags at times, but the plot twists of the last half hour are worth sticking around for. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I'm not sure if this is actually the first of the Fox backstage musicals which flowered in the late 30's and early 40's, but it's certainly an early entry in the series, and the plotline is one that was followed closely in many later Fox films. Warner Baxter, bringing over some of his cachet from playing a similar part in 42ND STREET, is a successful burlesque producer who wants to head uptown and produce "legitimate" Broadway revues. He, his lead attraction (Alice Faye, done up to look a bit like Jean Harlow), and his partner (Jack Oakie) do just that and a few years later, Baxter owns his own music hall. At an auction, Baxter meets socialite Mona Barrie, and takes her as a trophy wife, leaving faithful Faye in the lurch. She leaves to make a go of it in Europe and becomes successful, while back in New York, Baxter, under the influence of Barrie, decides he needs to do something artier than his usual fare. Barrie becomes a screaming bitch, the shows flop, and soon Baxter has lost his wife and his theatre. Faye finds out and returns home, secretly financing Baxter's comeback (using cleaned-up street bum Gregory Ratoff as a front). Baxter can't afford top talent, so he uses a bunch of nobodies (a telephone operator, an office boy, etc.) who, over the course of the film, have been begging him for auditions. Of course, the show's a hit and Baxter and Faye wind up together. The plot isn't much, though I did like the twist involving the "nobodies" we see attempting to do mini-auditions throughout the film, among whom are juvenile singer Kenny Baker and the famous jazz pianist Fats Waller. Arline Judge plays Oakie's lady friend. There are some fine musical numbers, fairly close to Busby Berkeley quality, including "Lovely Lady" and "Too Good to be True" (which both got choreographer Sammy Lee an Oscar nomination). [FMC]

Monday, March 12, 2007

THE 300 SPARTANS (1962)

By sheer coincidence, I watched this movie about the battle at Thermopylae between a small group of Spartan warriors and the much larger Persian army of King Xerxes only a week before a brand new movie about the same battle ("300," based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller) was released--and set a box office record for biggest March opening. I'm not a big fan of the current trend of "video game" movies, and the reviews of "300" have been terrible, but this early 60's epic is a largely empty affair full of blah writing and acting, and only average battle scenes, with some nice location scenery about the only bright spot. In 480 B.C., Xerxes (David Farrar, giving by far the best performance in the film), ruler of the Persian Empire, is out to crush the resistance of the independent Greek states, whose rulers can't agree on a war plan; should they unite or fight as separate forces? Themistocles of Athens (Ralph Richardson) pushes for unity but others, such as Xenathon, are trying to undermine him. Spartan King Leonidas (Richard Egan) takes his personal bodyguard troop of 300 to the pass at Thermopylae to hold off the Persian army, composed primarily of slaves, believing he'll get back-up troops after the current religious festival ends, but when the Delphic Oracle predicts disaster, the Greeks decide to stay put to defend Athens. The Spartans, having been taught to value the love of freedom even above their own lives, are fierce fighters (something that is probably more graphically illustrated in the recent film) and are able not only to hold off the Persians (with some help from a few other Greek volunteers) but to burn down the king's camp. Even Xerxes' personal army, known as the Immortals, is defeated, spreading fear among the slave army. Queen Artemisa (Anne Wakefield) advises Xerxes to back off and save face by claiming that he's had a vision from the gods to retreat, but Ephialtes (Keiron Moore), a local who has been spurned by Greek lovely Ellas (Diane Baker), goes to Xerxes with information about a secret goat herder's path, and Xerxes uses this information to launch a sneak attack, leading to the climactic battle in which the vastly outnumbered Spartans die valiantly. The sets, backgrounds, and costumes all look good, but the actors are strictly second string except Richardson (who hasn't much to do) and Farrar (who film buffs will remember as the man who turns the nuns' heads in BLACK NARCISSUS), and Farrar's screen time as the hissable villlian is the only time the non-action scenes come alive. There is a moderately interesting subplot involving the young Spartan Phylon (Barry Coe, who is nice to look at but seems to be barely hiding a "good-ol'-boy" accent), his father, who is assumed to be a spy but isn't, and the aforementioned looker Ellas, but that all ultimately feels like it's part of a different movie. The last battle is nicely handled. The film winds up feeling like a particularly slow episode of HBO's (much more interesting) series ROME. [FMC]

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a collection of 100 short and mostly bawdy tales, in the 14th century; they are very much like the stories told by Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. In the 1970's Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted both works as movies, clearly relishing the earthiness and vulgarity of the stories of both men. Here, he adapts only a handful of Boccaccio's hundred (I counted nine or ten, depending on whether the incidents befalling the first character (Ninetto Davoli) count as one or two stories) and a continuing tale involving Pasolini playing the artist Giotto working on a fresco. He also does away with the original frame narrative of a group of men and women telling each other the stories as they spend ten days in a country house escaping the plague which is spreading in Florence. As a result, the movie feels a bit like a vaudeville show of unrelated skits. In the first (and second?) bit, a woman tells a young man (Davoli) visiting from another town that she recognizes him as a long-lost relative and offers him a place to stay, but she has him robbed and dumped down a shithole; he climbs out, covered in filth, and is taken in by a group of scammers who are stealing riches from an archbishop's sarcophagus. He climbs in and hands out most of the booty, but they slam the stone lid on him, trapping him with the corpse (and at least one valuable ring). Understandably, Davoli freaks out, but soon another group of crooks happen by and pry the lid open. As they are daring each other to get in, Davoli hears one of them taunt another by saying, "Dead men don't bite," so that's just what Davoli does to the poor guy who climbs in looking for loot. The next tale, with its emphasis on sex and social customs, is more indicative of the rest: a young man posing as a deaf-mute goes to a convent and gets a job as a groundskeeper; two of the celibate nuns decide to take a walk on the wild side and force him to have sex with them (as though it were just another chore). They like it and wind up passing him around among the rest of the sisters, and the sex does indeed become a chore, and one he grows unhappy with until he finally speaks and the Mother Superior proclaims that a miracle has occurred. Other bawdy plotlines: a young woman sleeps out on the balcony of her family's house supposedly in order to see if she can catch a nightingale, but actually she's having a tryst with her boyfriend; a band of brothers plot to kill a man who has been sneaking in at night to have sex with their sister, but they don't realize the extent to which she wants to keep him around the house; a traveling priest takes advantage of a naive couple in order to seduce the wife. Most of the stories are amusing, and often have almost Twilight Zone-like ironic twists, though some feel unfinished. There is sex galore (though not terribly explicit) and quite a bit of male nudity, enough to get the movie an X rating upon initial release. There is also a fairly strong anti-organized religion tone, especially evident in a tale involving a man who dies--from having too much sex--and returns from beyond to tell his buddy that the church is wrong and sex doesn't count as a sin in the afterlife. Though not much happens in the Giotto story (he starts painting a religious fresco, gets frustrated, gets inspired, and finally allows the public in to see it, though it's still unfinished), the fact that director and writer Pasolini plays the artist gives these scenes some resonance, and his final line is almost haunting: "Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?" [DVD]

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


A cute B-screwball comedy which gets around one my main problems with the genre: most of them are just too darn long to fully sustain all the romantic craziness. This one is just under an hour and never wears out its welcome. The title character (Ann Sheridan) is about to marry a casual acquaintance (William Hopper) on a bet after a night of partying--and this isn't her first attempt at a madcap elopement. Her father, advertising executive Hugh O'Connell, is out to stop her, and handsome hobo Craig Reynolds, who has been riding the rails, helps him out by telling the justice of the peace that he is already her husband. Dad spooks Sheridan by inviting Reynolds to stay the night, which sends her into a hysterical fit. By this point anyone who's seen MY MAN GODFREY, or just been paying attention, will know that Reynolds will wind up being something other than a hobo (he's the son of a big ad exec in Boston who has been out to see the country "through the eyes of the forgotten man," a theme that would be addressed more directly a few years later in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS), and that he will tame the footloose heiress into a dutiful wife. Along the way, he also writes an ad campaign for Dad and winds up in jail before he and Sheridan take off into the sunset, catching a ride on a train bound for Boston. The supporting cast isn't much to speak of, but Sheridan and Reynolds are fine and have good comic chemistry. [TCM]

Monday, March 05, 2007


Colorful Fox musical whose main selling points are nostalgia and Betty Grable. Set at the turn of the century, the film begins with George Montgomery, as a Coney Island barker, looking to make a move to the big time as his old pal Cesar Romero, owner of a high-class saloon, has done. Carny Phil Silvers takes Montgomery on and soon Silvers' "Turkish Harem" girlie show is doing gangbusters, and putting a bit of a dent in Romero's business, but what Montgomery really wants is a piece of Romero's operation, so through an elaborate prank which involves faking the death of old friend Charles Winninger, a saloon regular, Montgomery becomes Romero's partner. His next step is to get saloon singer Grable to refine her act--he thinks she's too hammy and in order to give her a classier style, he handcuffs her while she's onstage, forcing her to rely less on movement and more on a creamy vocal style. The trick works and soon Grable moves on to bigger and better things, leaving behind both Romero and Montgomery. The rest of the film finds the two men as rivals getting into and out of Grable's good graces. Of course, as leading man, there's never any doubt that Montgomery will win in the end. Grable is fine, singing "Cuddle Up a Little Closer" and "Pretty Baby," along with a slew of new songs written for the movie. Montgomery is handsome and charming, as is Romero--the nice thing here is that, even though we know that Romero will lose the girl, he's not portrayed as a villain, but just as the guy who came in second. Winninger is good as always, and Silvers is relatively inoffensive, unlike in his horrific turn in SUMMER STOCK. [FMC]

Friday, March 02, 2007


This little WWII gem seems to have been hidden away for years in the Columbia vaults; after reading about it recently in two different books on wartime cinema, I thought it sounded interesting and I was excited to see it in rotation on Turner Classic Movies. Released in early 1944, long before the end of the war, the film is set after the war at a war crimes trial (and the set looks remarkably like the one for the later JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, which was based on the trials that actually did occur). Alexander Knox is a former Reich Commissioner charged with murder and "degenerate atrocities" and the film focuses not on the trial but, through flashbacks given by witnesses, on how Knox became such a willing Nazi. In 1919, just after the First World War, Knox, a German schoolteacher, returns to the Polish village in which he had been teaching, having lost a leg in the war. Though the locals seem to accept him, he feels a lingering prejudice which puts him on his guard; his fiancee, Marsha Hunt, senses his coldness and postpones their wedding. After he overhears his students mocking him for not being good enough for Polish women, he rapes a local girl who then kills herself. Knox is attacked by a group of locals and leaves town; the kindly local priest (Henry Travers) and rabbi (Richard Hale) give him money to get a new start. In 1923, Knox has joined the Nazi party, telling his socialist brother (Erik Rolf) about Hitler's "new religion of blood and race." After the notorious Beer Hall Putsch, Knox is jailed, as is Hitler, who Knox says is writing "a masterpiece" in his cell. By 1933, the Nazis have come to power; when Rolf plans to move his family to Vienna to escape the coming madness, Knox betrays him and sends him to an "indoctrination" camp, while taking Rolf's young son under his wing and entering him in a Hitler youth group. After Germany conquers Poland in 1939, Knox is installed as commissioner of the Polish village and he oversees the deportation of the poor and weak to labor camps. The local synagogue is turned into a barn ("Horses are more important than Jews," says Knox) and the town's Jews are rounded up in train cars. When the rabbi makes an impassioned speech for resistance, Knox orders a massacre. The local women are forced into prostitution, though Knox excuses Hunt's daughter, on whom his nephew (Richard Crane) develops a crush. The inevitable climax involves an incident much like the one that started the film, with rape (symbolic, if not actual), suicide and murder. Back in the courtroom, Knox, unbowed, gives a final snarling rant against the court. The film should have ended here, but a rather anti-climatic speech by the judge, aimed directly at the film audience, weakens the conclusion.

Even though this film was made before the full horror of the Holocaust was exposed, it remains a grim and powerful film. Knox's character is a three-dimensional villain (even sympathetic in the beginning), even as I suspect he is also intended to function as a symbol for Germany, especially given his physical handicaps: he loses a leg in WWI and loses an eye in a confrontation with a Polish villager (who later joins the resistance). Knox himself is excellent, making his character repellent but not melodramatically so. Though most of the acting would be seen as lightweight today for a war horrors film, the supporting cast is uniformly fine, with the standouts the dignified Travers and the baby-faced Crane who moves realistically (and tragically) from casual acceptance of the Nazi philosophy to rejection. Even Hunt, who I've not been terribly impressed with, eventually displays the requisite gravitas for her role. The film, in a truly prescient way, makes the point, more than once, that the Nazis' claims that they were just following orders and could not choose to rebel doesn't hold water--Knox is shown to be a person who finds in the Nazi movement a way of life which satisfied his gnawing feelings (nationalistic and personal) of resentment and revenge. At one point, when Hunt tries to appeal to his humanity, he replies, "Human feeling is the last resort of decadence." One scene seems to provide just a hint of pederasty in Knox's attentions to his nephew. The resolution of the otherwise hard-hitting Jewish slaughter scene is odd: the rabbi collapses and dies in the shadow of a road sign in the shape of a cross. The imagery is obvious and not accidental, though I am at a bit of a loss to explain what it means. Now that this film is in circulation again, I hope it gets the attention it deserves. [TCM]