Friday, June 29, 2007


This was an early entry in the "black comedy" genre, and though it may have seemed daring in its day, it feels rather dated now. The film starts with a murder, which we find out is actually part of a live TV drama being directed by a frantic Glenn Ford. His doctor tells him that stress is making him sick, but the doc doesn't know the half of it: Ford's about to take on the assignment of writing a movie for Alfred Hitchcock, and he's trying to figure out how to deal with a blackmailer who wants lots of money to turn over some old nudie shots of his wife (Debbie Reynolds) who has just become the toast of Broadway in a new musical. Ford thinks he'll have to sell their new, spacious suburban house (to which they are having a backyard gazebo added) to raise the money, and to get Reynolds (who is in the dark about the blackmail) to go along with his plan, he has started booby-trapping the house, mostly its plumbing system, so nothing is working like it should. When Ford asks friend (and district attorney) Carl Reiner, in the guise of needing to know for a script, how to deal with a blackmailer, Reiner suggests murder, and Ford decides to plot the perfect crime. He sets everything up one night, and does manage to shoot and kill a figure in the dark, though (in a genuinely funny sequence which includes a phone call from Hitchcock) most everything else goes wrong. He buries the body in the gazebo's foundation, then discovers the next day that the blackmailer was killed in his own apartment by someone else. Naturally, Ford wonders who the hell is buried in the gazebo, and soon, heavy rains and an eager construction crew threaten to bring evidence of Ford's crime to the surface. It's a comedy, so through some torturous, last-minute plot developments, it turns out that Ford didn't actually kill anyone, though there is indeed a dead body under the gazebo. Ford is front and center for almost every scene in the movie and he is mostly up to the task, though the writing sometimes lets him down, and the frantic pace of the film is a bit too much--it feels like Ford is working too hard at being "on" all the time, rather like James Cagney in his equally frantic turn in ONE TWO THREE. John McGiver is a construction worker who pronounces the title edifice, "gaze-bow," Martin Landau has a small role as a thug, and most amusing is Doro Merande as a shrieking maid. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I have a shocking lapse in my film buff background: I have yet to see all of GOODBYE MR. CHIPS; I've seen bits and pieces, maybe even an entire 20 minutes, but it's one of those movies I know so much about, I feel like I've seen it several times already so I never plunk myself down to watch the whole thing. However, I have now spent time with what is undoubtedly the female version of Mr. Chips in Miss Bishop and I feel even less inclined to view the original. This film covers fifty years in the life of the college English teacher of the title (Martha Scott) starting in the 1880's with Scott as a freshman at a newly established school, Midwestern University. Fired up by a speech given by college president Edmund Gwenn, Scott decides to become a teacher. Delivery boy William Gargan is sweet on her, but she puts him off to devote all her energy to her studies and then, after graduation, to her career teaching at Midwestern U. Her students, of course, all love her right away. One evening, while putting candy out on the roof to cool, she gets locked out and has to depend on the kindness of a passing stranger (Donald Douglas) to get back in. He's a lawyer, new in town, considered "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," but Scott falls for him anyway (much to Gargan's hidden dismay). Unfortunately, just before their marriage, he confesses that he's fallen in love with Scott's cousin (Mary Anderson) and he marries her instead. The humiliated Scott decides to leave town to take a job as a librarian, but when a pregnant Anderson returns home after her husband leaves her, then dies in childbirth, Scott stays to raise the child.

The movie skips the next 18 years, during which time I guess nothing at all happens to Scott (except the child grows up to become Marsha Hunt), and then she falls in love again, this time with new teacher Sidney Blackmer, who is in the midst of a divorce. However, that romance falls though as well. More years pass, Gwenn retires, Hunt marries and has a daughter (who goes to Midwestern U), and we're brought up to the present day at a surprise retirement dinner for Scott. Gargan has remained loyal to her even though it never seems like he gets much out their relationship, and the film ends (as it began before entering flashback mode) with Gargan and Scott going over old days. Scott is fine in what is basically a colorless role, as is Gargan, who despite co-star billing has little to do. Sterling Holloway plays the college gardener who is involved in a tedious running gag about his flower beds which keep getting trampled. Also with Dorothy Peterson, John Archer (father of actress Anne Archer), and Rosemary DeCamp in her first movie role. There are two quotes I enjoyed. One, which is the point of the movie, comes from a poem that Blackmer reads to Scott: "The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story and writes another." The other comes from Scott when being ushered out to her surprise dinner and told she looks "snappy"; her curt reply: "I must above all things be 'snappy.'" A little more of that kind of bite would have made this movie more interesting. [TCM]

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Because every plot summary I've read of this movie mentions two "nutty" or "batty" or "crazy" sisters, I had it in my head that this was a dark comedy on the order of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. It's dark, but it's not a comedy; it's more like the ARSENIC situation done in the style of a Gothic thriller like NIGHT MUST FALL. Ida Lupino is the housekeeper for a retired actress (Isobel Elsom) who lives in a quaint old cottage out on the moors. They have a good relationship, with Elsom saying she thinks of Lupino almost like a daughter, until Lupino gets word from London that her two nutty/batty/crazy sisters are about to get thrown out by their landlady. She brings them (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett) to the cottage for what Elsom thinks is just a short visit which stretches into six unbearable weeks. The sisters aren't exactly dangerous, but they are definitely eccentric what with Lanchester constantly "cleaning" the moor, bringing twigs, dirt, and dead birds into the cottage and the more whimsical but still annoying Barrett fluttering about. The old lady issues an ultimatum and when Lupino balks, not wanting to dump her sisters in an institution, Elsom kicks them all out. Lupino, at the end of her rope, kills the old lady; she tells the sisters that she's bought the house from Elsom, and she tells the neighbors that Elsom's gone on an extended vacation. Enter Lupino's charming but ne'er-do-well nephew (Louis Hayward) who has embezzled money from a bank and needs a place to hide out. Lupino has no choice but to let him stay for a while, but when he begins putting two and two together and realizes that Elsom must be dead, a war of nerves ensues.

The film is rarely truly tense, but it is well paced and occasionally creepy, though a scene that involves the possible appearance of a ghost could have been handled better. Lupino is excellent from first to last, underplaying her part and making it all the more effective, and Lanchester matches her in a role quite different from any other I've seen her in. Evelyn Keyes does good work as Elsom's maid who gets drawn into a flirtatious relationship with Hayward, and Emma Dunn has a small role as a nun who pops in every so often as a plot device to announce one thing or another. The sets are very stagy but spectacularly atmospheric; the foggy moors look weird even in daylight, and the cottage seems cozy, lived in, quite inviting, and spooky all at once. The script is also stagy; like the film versions of NIGHT MUST FALL and the later WAIT UNTIL DARK, it's clear that this hews closely to the original play, but that's not a liability. There seems to be an interesting element about the relationship between Lupino and Hayward--a past flirtation or some such weirdness--that is only hinted at. The ending is, in my eyes, both too pat and a bit too ambiguous, possibly in order to satisfy the Production Code, but it doesn't ruin the film. This is another of those gems from the Columbia Pictures vault which has been out of circulation for a while, so if it crops up on TCM again, see it while you can. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I found the Faulkner novel this movie is based on to be willfully difficult to little purpose, but some of the characters are memorable. The movie has little to do with the book's non-linear narrative, and does lots of messing around with the characters, but taken on its own, this is one of the better sweaty Southern family melodramas that seemed so popular in the late 50's. The opening is marred by some clunky narrated exposition introducing Quentin Compson, a wild child (apparently high school-age but as played by Joanne Woodward, looking at least as old as a college graduate) who has been raised by her uncle Jason (Yul Brynner), or more precisely her vaguely European step-uncle Jason, as no effort is made to hide Brynner's thick Russian accent. Living with them in a dilapidated mansion are Quentin's retarded brother Benjy (Jack Warden), her alcoholic Uncle Howard (John Beal), and their maid Dilsey (Ethel Waters) and her young grandson Luster (Stephen Perry) who is Benjy's unofficial caretaker. Quentin's mother Caddy (Margaret Leighton), who had Quentin out of wedlock, left her the day after she was born and periodically sends her money, most of which is "stolen" by Jason (though we learn later for a benevolent reason). The restless Quentin flirts with a hunky shirtless carnival worker (Stuart Whitman) and decides to go on the road with him until Jason scotches that plan by showing that Whitman is only in it for the money he thinks she's got. Caddy shows up out of the blue, looking for a place to stay and for a relationship with her daughter. Benjy, riled up inarticulately about Quentin's naughty ways, attacks her and gets sent to an asylum. Jason and Quentin seem to come to a respectful understanding at the end, though the incestuous vibe between them may lead a viewer to wonder.

Brynner, though on the surface no one's idea of a Southern patriarch, is really quite good; he seems awkward and unmoored at the start, but his performance gains strength along the way. He does a nice job of keeping us at an arm's length from the character; in the first half, when we're mostly seeing him through Quentin's eyes, he comes off as cruel and unfeeling, but as we slowly get more insight, he becomes more sympathetic. And he has hair, which helps to distance him from his earlier royal roles as the King of Siam and Rameses. In general, he comes off as a sort of dissolutely attractive and conflicted bully. He's probably not a Faulkner scholar's idea of Jason, but he does help make the movie interesting. Woodward, whom I usually love, isn't at her best here and I can't pinpoint why--maybe she's just overshadowed by others, particularly Leighton as her mother, who comes off a lot like Vivien Leigh playing Blanche DuBois, but with a little more backbone. Though the maid plays an important role in the book, Waters is reduced to just a few lines here and there. Several of the novel's famous setpieces (Dilsey going to church, Quentin climbing the tree) are only glancingly referred to here, almost as in-jokes for fans of the book. Whatever profundity people find in Faulkner won't be found here, but as a potboiler melodrama, this is entertaining enough, and a must for fans of Brynner. [FMC]

Saturday, June 16, 2007

ALL MY SONS (1948)

I tend to like movies based closely on plays, even when they're a bit stagy, so I was predisposed to like this one, based on Arthur Miller's first hit play. It's a powerful family melodrama, though not as powerful as the play since, as Robert Osborne noted on TCM, Hollywood took out any references to the possibility that greed and corruption are inherent in the capitalist system, making it instead a story of one man's greed and corruption. When the film opens, WWII has been over for a while, though not so long that missing-in-action soldiers might not plausibly show up alive. Edward G. Robinson is a manufacturer, a self-made success, who made airplane parts during the war. His partner (Frank Conroy) was found guilty of knowingly shipping defective parts which resulted in the deaths of 21 American pilots and is still in jail; Robinson was exonerated. One of Robinson's sons (Burt Lancaster) is ready to take his spot in the family business; Larry, the other son, is officially MIA, but his mother (Mady Christians) is certain that he will show up one of these days, and everyone else tiptoes around the issue when in her earshot. Lancaster has fallen in love with Larry's fiancee (Louisa Horton), who is also the daughter of Robinson's disgraced partner, but Mom assumes that Horton will wait for Larry, and Robinson asks Lancaster to cool his jets for a while. Though Robinson is generally liked and respected in town, we see that some folks believe that he was just as guilty as Conroy, but that he was clever enough to stay out of jail. Not long after Lancaster awkwardly proposes to Horton, her brother (Howard Duff), a lawyer who has been digging into his father's case, shows up in town, sullen and distrustful of Robinson's family. The matronly Christians softens him up a bit, but Lancaster begins to doubt his own father's story (Robinson was supposedly sick and off work the day that the defective parts were shipped), so he goes to visit Conroy in prison where we get a flashback view of what really happened. It's no spoiler to note that Robinson indeed bears some responsibility for the shipment, but I won't give away the machinations that lead to the tragic climax, which is played out very powerfully by Robinson in perhaps the strongest acting of his career. Even though I figured out what was coming, Robinson moved me to tears. The character is a bit like a Scrooge figure who figures out his lesson ("Mankind should have been my business!") too late for redemption. I enjoyed one throwaway line from a secondary character: "Sleep's a wonderful thing--best thing about living." A few years ago I would have laughed at that, but now I can appreciate it. The cast also includes Arlene Francis (the stalwart "What's My Line" panelist) and Harry Morgan as chatty neighbors who are mostly present to provide exposition. Lancaster, Christians, and Duff are fine, Horton a little less so, but it's Robinson's game all the way and he's reason enough to seek this gem out, which Universal issued on VHS but not yet on DVD. Now if only Columbia would unearth the rarely-seen 1951 film adaptation of Miller's "Death of a Salesman." [TCM]

Monday, June 11, 2007


This relatively plotless, light-hearted drama is based on what I understand is a relatively plotless, light-hearted book by John Steinbeck, a collection of vignettes about the folks who live in an impoverished neighborhood in Monterey, California. In the movie, most of the characters are poor Mexican-Americans, played almost entirely by Anglo actors. John Garfield is a roughneck youth, led astray by the older Spencer Tracy who, in the opening, helps get Garfield out of jail but proceeds to basically ruin the lad's life, financially and romantically. Garfield inherits two houses on Tortilla Flat from a dead grandfather and due to Tracy, both wind up burned to the ground, events which are taken rather lightly by Tracy and his gang of ne'er-do-wells. Both actors are fine, though I found Tracy's character totally unlikeable (and I'm pretty sure he's not supposed to be). Most everyone seems like they belong in a Damon Runyon story, and your tolerance for Runyonesque atmosphere may well determine how much you like this film. Hedy Lamarr does what she can with the underwritten role of a sexy but sweet homegirl. Frank Morgan is fun, hiding behind a thick, fake-looking beard as a dog-loving, St. Francis-worshipping eccentric who winds up, at least briefly, in Tracy's orbit. There is solid support from Sheldon Leonard, Akim Tamiroff, Allen Jenkins, and Connie Gilchrist. The whole thing suffers from being a bit too studio-bound; it might work better today as an small indie effort, and in fact this film's atmosphere feels a lot like that of the 80's film version of Steinbeck's CANNERY ROW which, while not an indie effort, could pass for one. [TCM]

Friday, June 08, 2007


An uncharacteristically light Ingmar Bergman film, pretty much the polar opposite of one of his more typical "heavier" films (like WINTER LIGHT). This was turned into a Stephen Sondheim musical (A Little Night Music) and it served as a direct model for Woody Allen's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY. It's a frisky romantic roundabout in which all the mismatched partners eventually find happiness. Fredrik (Gunnar Bjornstrand) takes his very young wife Anna (Ulla Jacobsson) to the theater to see famed actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), who also happens to be Fredrik's former mistress (and whose name he blurted out earlier during an unsuccessful bout of lovemaking with Anna, who is still a virgin after 2 years of marriage). Henrik, Fredrik's mopey son from a previous marriage (Bjorn Bjelvenstam) who is half-heartedly studying for the clergy, clearly has a thing for Anna but isn't above a little dallying with the maid (Harriet Andersson). Fredrik visits Desiree after the show and as they reminisce and bicker about old days (Fredrik discovers that Desiree's young son may be his), her current lover, the martinet Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle) arrives and threatens to instigate a duel, no matter that Malcolm is himself married. Desiree gets her mother to invite the whole bunch to a weekend house party at which they are all served wine supposedly spiked with "breast milk and stallion seed" which apparently serves as a kind of honesty/love potion. Through the night, the unsettled couples go through a series of incidents which has the effect of getting everyone settled again, albeit in different combinations than those in which they arrived. The film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and indeed touches on serious adult relationship issues, but it is amusing and even whimsical. There are some notable one-liners, or as close as Bergman gets to giving us one-liners. When Desiree is catching up with Fredrik, she tells him, "I’ve been 29 for three years which is nothing for a woman of my age." Irritated with Fredrik's apparent placidity, she yells, "I wish just once you'd shatter to the core, so much so that not a fart was left." Later, the pompous Count Malcolm announces to Fredrik, "I can tolerate my wife's infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger." The black and white cinematography is lovely, especially in depicting the long bright summer Swedish night which serves as the backdrop for the last half of the film. [DVD]

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Before I saw this film on Turner Classic Movie's schedule, I had never heard of it, or at least it had never made a blip on my movie radar. From the title and the presence of actor Zachery Scott, best known as an effete cad in films like MILDRED PIERCE and FLAMINGO ROAD, I was expecting a Southern Gothic campfest, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead, it's a beautifully filmed, well-acted drama which focuses on a poor sharecropping family--it's a less self-consciously artsy GRAPES OF WRATH. Scott and Betty Field play a couple with two kids who are barely eking out a living as migrant cotton pickers. When his uncle collapses in the field, his dying words are, "Grow your own crops," so Scott arranges with his boss to rent a patch of idle land to farm, though first they have to put all their time, effort, and what little money they have into rebuilding the rickety house. The film consists of short episodes following the family through their first year, autumn through summer. Things start out tough and get tougher; in addition to the hard labor, chilly weather, and insufficient food, they also have to contend with Scott's incredibly cranky grandmother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps needling him about not living up to his manly ancestors. In the winter, Bondi has to give up part of her blanket to make a coat for the little girl so she can go to school in the cold. In the spring, their boy develops a serious skin disorder due to a lack of fruits, vegetables, and milk in his diet. A neighbor (J. Carroll Naish) develops a confrontational relationship with the family, worried that their success will somehow diminish his long-fought-for status as top dog in the nearby community. When Naish's animals destroy Scott's vegetable garden, a near-fatal brawl ensues. At harvest time, things seem to be looking up for the family, and when Scott's mother (Blanche Yurka) marries the local grocer (Percy Kilbride, best known as Pa Kettle), the whole town celebrates, but that night a huge storm hits and floods out Scott's cotton (and his diary cow). Scott hits rock bottom and is ready to join a pal in turning to factory work, but his family inspires him to keep trying.

The main thing that makes this film stand out is the way it usually undercuts cliches or heavy-handed symbolism. You expect Scott to eventually smooth things over with Naish, and he does, but not until they've gone through hard-fought battles of both words and fists. I kept waiting for Naish's daughter (Noreen Nash) to seduce Scott (as happens in a similar film, OUR DAILY BREAD), but it never happens. I also kept waiting for Bondi to die, of age or illness or just plain meanness, especially after we see her talk about the future while using a hand fan imprinted with the logo of a local undertaker, but to the film's credit, that never happens, either. She does soften her stance a bit, but remains mostly a nasty ol' cuss right to the last shots of the film. Directed by Jean Renoir, much of the film has a documentary feel, occasionally reminding me of the look of THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS, which helps it retain a fairly gritty tone. Scott is a revelation here; he's quietly strong, a bit like Henry Fonda, but there are times when he seems just about beaten, or when we question his judgment; even in the end, we're not sure that his family will make it. Oddly, despite being grimy and dressed in mostly the same dirty dungarees all through the film, he's also sort of sexy, and in general he's a much more appealing figure than I've ever seen him be. It's a shame his career led him into a rut of slimy bad guys. Field, perhaps best known as the doomed sexpot of the 1939 OF MICE AND MEN, is fine and the two feel right together. Norman Lloyd (Dr. Auschlander on St. Elsewhere) has a small role as a somewhat feeble-minded nephew of Naish's. Bondi is practically the archetype of the shrill, shrewish granny, and her performance is all the more interesting when you realize that just one year later, she would embody the opposite archetype, the sweet, wise granny, as Mrs. Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. This may not be a great movie, but it deserves to be better known and more widely circulated. See it if you can. [TCM]

Saturday, June 02, 2007

GOOD NEWS (1947)

The archetypal college musical (c.f. TOO MANY GIRLS and COLLEGE SWING): glossy, colorful, and filled with catchy songs. Fall semester 1927 is in full swing at Tait College. Peter Lawford, the football star, is hot for new transfer student Patricia Marshall, who is actually a gold digging socialite interested only in men who come from money. June Allyson, working her way through college as a librarian, is talked into helping Lawford learn French to impress Marshall so she'll go to the big dance with him, even though she's superficially smitten with the Rich Man on Campus, Robert Strickland. Along the way, Lawford and Allyson fall for each other and when he finally realizes that he has no chance with Marshall, he asks Allyson to the dance, but when Marshall thinks (erroneously) that Lawford is rich, she weasels her way in as his date, leaving Allyson dateless. When the unhappy Lawford flunks his French class, he can't play in the big game until he retakes the test, and once again Allyson is called upon to help tutor him for good old Tait. This time, things work out so there's a happy ending for Lawford and Allyson. There's also a romantic triangle subplot involving Allyson's best friend, Joan McCracken, the musclebound lug who has claimed her as his property (Loren Tindell), and the skinny but sweet football hero-wannabe (Ray McDonald) who McCracken actually wants.

The musical numbers are all fun, especially a cute novelty song called "The French Lesson" and the big finale, "The Varsity Drag," but the main reason for watching is the presence of Joan McCracken. She was a rising star on the Broadway musical stage in the 40's, but this is the only movie she made (aside from a cameo in BROADWAY CANTEEN) and she's delightful in her high energy role, particularly in her spotlight number, "Pass That Peace Pipe," in which she is paired up with McDonald (another fine dancer who never got the movie breaks he deserved). As I was watching the film this time, it amused me to view it as an Archie Comics story, with Lawford as Reggie, Allyson as Betty, Marshall as Veronica, Tindall as Moose, and McCracken as Midge, which I guess would make McDonald a cross between Archie and Jughead. The movie also features Mel Torme as a slightly dissipated student (maybe a slave to the reefer), Connie Gilchrist as a sorority house cook, and Donald MacBride and Tom Dugan as coaches. All the actors look too old to be college-age (except McDonald), especially Allyson, who looks like she could be McDonald's mother, but the movie is mostly fizzy colorful fun, and to be treasured for the rare McCracken appearance. There's a great biography out of McCracken, called "The Girl Who Fell Down" which I've just reviewed on my other blog. [DVD]

Friday, June 01, 2007


Poverty Row mystery from Monogram with a pleasantly goofy leading man, hurt by a drab leading lady and weak comic timing. The title character (Jean Rogers) is not really a detective but a secretary to businessman Edward Earle. She has to deliver a train ticket to his home one night, and her slightly befuddled boyfriend (Peter Cookson) jokingly threatens to kill Earle for messing up their plans for the evening. Unfortunately, a taxi driver (Pat Gleason) overhears his threat and later that night, at Earle's house, Rogers discovers her boss dead. Both she and Cookson become suspects, as do Earle's widow (Veda Ann Borg), her lover (Douglas Fowley), and Earle's butler and lawyer. Inspector Tim Ryan (who also co-wrote the screenplay) and his sidekick Edward Gargan (who you'll recognize as a cop from dozens of 30's and 40's movies) provide the necessary comic police bungling while Rogers and Cookson race around trying to clear themselves and find the real killer. If you blur your eyes, you might imagine that the lead pair are Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert, and in fact Cookson does affect a Grant-ish accent. Cookson is nice looking and quite amusing. He made a handful of B-movies in the 40's and did some TV work before retiring, and was married to Beatrice Straight (later an Oscar-winner for NETWORK). Some of the comic situations have potential, but between the very low budget and the weak pacing, most of them don't come off. Still, I’m glad to have seen this if only to see one of Cookson's few leading roles. [TCM]