Tuesday, May 29, 2007

GAMBLER'S CHOICE (1944)

A slightly sub-B drama which follows the formula of any number of 30's crime films (from MANHATTAN MELODRAMA on) as it focuses on three childhood friends who take very different paths in life. This one opens with a gang of pickpocketing kids getting caught by the cops; Mike and Mary, first-time offenders, are let off, but Ross, a no-good kid with a brutal father, goes to a detention home. Years later Ross (Chester Morris) is a gambler, Mike (Russell Hayden) is a cop, and they both love Mary (Nancy Kelly), a singer. Morris, who works at Sheldon Leonard's gambling club in the Tenderloin, is fleecing a society woman (Lee Patrick) to get seed money to start his own club. He hires a singer who goes by the name Vi Parker (and who performs in a giant floating crescent moon prop) but who is really his old pal Kelly. As Morris gains money and power, he is able to get his cop friend Hayden promoted and he begins romancing Kelly, which irritates Patrick. Leonard and Patrick connive to get rid of Morris, but in a scuffle, a cop is killed by mistake and Hayden gets all the clubs shut down. Morris sees to it that Hayden is demoted to a rural beat, but eventually a special prosecutor brings Hayden back to head up a massive clean-up campaign. Stuck in the middle of all this is Kelly and her aging father (Lloyd Corrigan). There's a plotline involving Leonard conspiring with gangster Lyle Talbot to make it look like Hayden is on the take, but Morris gets all noble and breaks into Leonard's place to steal the phony evidence. In the end there's a shootout in which Morris sacrifices himself so Hayden and Kelly can live happily ever after. For a short movie, there's a lot of plot; it never becomes incoherent, but I also never really felt much for any of the characters. Had this been done at Warner Brothers, there might have been some spice to the proceedings, but it was, I believe, an independent film released through Paramount, and it winds up as nothing special. [DVD]

Saturday, May 26, 2007

SECRET COMMAND (1944)

A solid WWII domestic espionage story which is a minor B-effort in production but is nonetheless packed with action and fun to watch. Pat O'Brien, out of touch with his family for years and apparently down on his luck, returns to his hometown and asks his brother (Chester Morris) for a job at a shipbuilding yard. There is some bad blood there since O'Brien left behind his loyal girl friend (Ruth Warrick) who is still getting over him (but who is currently dating Morris) and didn't even return for their mother's funeral. Morris grudgingly gives him a job and we learn that O'Brien is a government agent, set up in town with a fake wife (fellow agent Carole Landis) and kids (two refugee children), in order to uncover a spy ring which is attempting to commit sabotage at the yard. He can't spill the beans to Morris, though when Warrick meets Landis and the kids, she suspects that the situation isn't quite right. Barton MacLane is a tough-guy worker who has little use for the influx of wartime newbies, whom he dismissively calls "McGees," and he gives O'Brien a hard time until, after some knock-down, drag-out fisticuffs, the two become buddies. Wallace Ford is a co-worker, also a planted agent who has infiltrated the spies and is leaking information to O'Brien. When the saboteurs try to pull off their first job, Morris foils it but gets hurt in the process and O'Brien saves him. One of the spies recognizes O'Brien (who spent time in a Berlin concentration camp) and comes after him at his home, leading to a tense scene which itself leads to a climax involving explosions, murder, and another brutal fistfight before the saboteurs are routed and the romantic complications settled. The movie is well paced and exciting, and it was produced late enough in the war that its propaganda elements are not obtrusive. As a fan of Chester Morris, I was sorry that he essentially disappears halfway through the film, returning briefly at the end. O'Brien was a bit too old and sluggish for the part (personally, I think Morris, who was close to O'Brien's age but seemed younger and more energetic, would have worked better), but he gives it his best and comes out OK, and Landis shines as the fake wife who O'Brien begins to fall for. Also with Tom Tully (as a Nazi) and Erik Rolf. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

BARABBAS (1961)

A biblical epic with, as is the Hollywood way, little direct connection to the Bible. Based on a novel by Per Lagerkvist, the story imagines the life of Barabbas, a character who is basically a footnote to the story of Christ's crucifixion; when Pilate (Arthur Kennedy) allows the crowd to pick one prisoner to be set free, they choose the thief Barabbas (Anthony Quinn). When he's freed, he goes back to his mistress Rachel (Silvana Mangano) who much to his dismay has become a follower of Christ. The crucifixion, filmed during an actual eclipse, is well done, and unfortunately is the last truly compelling part of the 140 minute movie. Rachel is the first person to see Christ's empty tomb on Sunday morning, but Quinn is not convinced, and even after talking with Lazarus and the Apostles, he returns to his carousing ways. Later Rachel is stoned to death for preaching Christianity and Barabbas is accused of blasphemy for stealing temple money. As a pardoned prisoner, he cannot be put to death (and since he thinks Jesus died for him, he also thinks he can't be killed by another human). He is sentenced to a life of hard work in the sulfur mines, where men routinely go blind from the poisonous air. Many years later, Barabbas and secret Christian Vittorio Gassman survive a cave-in; nobleman Rufio (Norman Wooland) believes they are charmed so he takes them to Rome to become gladiators. The action scenes in the arena, which feature Jack Palance as a particularly fierce fighter, are pulled off quite well. The film ends with Nero's burning of Rome; Barabbas, who has been fighting the pull of Christianity, finally comes to believe that the huge fire is a sign of the apocalypse and meets up one more time with the apostle Peter (Harry Andrews) before meeting his death in a nicely ironic fashion. Much of the film is lovely to look at, with nice widescreen compositions, but except for Barabbas, no other character comes close to being fleshed out. As is the case in many Biblical epics, the supporting actors (including Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado, who were married at the time) aren't really allowed much more than cameos. Quinn is fine but seems a bit beaten down by the sprawling script. But the main problem here is the overlong running time. Had it been trimmed down a bit, especially in the middle hour, it wouldn't seem like such a slog. Still, if you're tired of movies like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or BEN-HUR at Easter, this might be an acceptable substitute. [TCM]

Sunday, May 20, 2007

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936)

I must preface this review by saying that, despite having a Master's degree in English and having taught American literature in the past, I have never read a single page of James Fennimore Cooper, and even more heretical for modern-day movie fans, I have never seen the recent Daniel Day-Lewis version of the story. So I came to this film with few expectations and I enjoyed it immensely. The setting is New York State in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars, in which the British were battling the French, who were allied with the Huron Indians. The somewhat foppish British Major Hayward (Henry Wilcoxon) is asked to take the Munro sisters, Alice (Binnie Barnes) and Cora (Heather Angel), to their father who is the commander of troops at Fort Henry. The Indian Magua (Bruce Cabot), who was born a Huron but made a blood brother of the vanishing Mohican tribe, agrees to lead them, but Hawkeye (Randolph Scott), a white American scout who was raised by Indians, is suspicious of Magua. Even though he doesn't get along with Hayward, he and his Mohican friends Uncas (Philip Reed) and Chingachgook (Robert Barrat), who are the last survivors of the tribe (killed off by the Hurons), follow at a distance. Sure enough, Magua, in leading his party down a side trail that he claims will save time, is actually sending them into a trap from which Hawkeye and friends save them.

As the group continues on to the besieged fort, it's clear that Alice, despite being more or less promised to Hayward, is growing sweet on Hawkeye, and Cora, despite being lusted after by the traitor Magua (and despite the Production Code's strictures against portraying "miscegenation"), is growing sweet on Uncas. At the fort, the French, in possession of a note from British forces that instructs the British troops to surrender, work out a deal to let the men leave with their arms, but the Hurons scalp and slaughter them anyway, and take the sisters. Cora is rescued by Uncas, but both ultimately meet a tragic fate together, leading to an interesting scene of a burial ceremony that unites Christian and Indian rites. Hawkeye decides to give himself up as a sacrifice to free Alice, but Hayward knocks him out, puts on his clothes, and goes off to do the sacrificing, posing as Hawkeye. After some wild Indian dancing, the scourging of Hawkeye, and a threatened burning at the stake, Hawkeye prevails and even makes a friend of Hayward (and maybe someday a wife of Alice). Most of the actors are top-notch, with the exception of the bland Barnes; Scott, who can sometimes be a bit wooden, is at his absolute best here. Cabot is quite savage (and sometimes a little sexy), Reed is silent and strong, and Wilcoxon is good at striking a balance between being hissable and likeable. At 90 minutes, the action never stops, albeit 1930's Hollywood action, which may seem somewhat slow going to today's audiences. A most enjoyable movie which has given me new respect for Randolph Scott and should be out on DVD. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

FRESHMAN LOVE (1936)

Odd little B-movie which is part-romantic comedy, part-college sports story, and part-musical, but at barely an hour in length, it can't commit to any of its possibilities and remains a scattered hybrid which is pleasant enough but never really comes together. The one interesting element is that instead of football, the focus of the film is competitive rowing. Frank McHugh is the crew coach at Billings College; the board of trustees is under pressure to fire him, not only because of another losing season, but also because the grade point average of the team is so low. McHugh enlists the help of the college president's lovely daughter (Patricia Ellis) in attracting some promising talent. She snags two men in person (Warren Hull and Walter Johnson), and behind her back, McHugh and his secretary (Mary Treen) sign her name to a rather breathy letter and send it, along with a glamour shot pic, to dozens of other prospects, which results in a landslide of men for the new school year. Hull, the best prospect for the team (and best romantic prospect for Ellis), is rejected due to his grades, so McHugh gets him in under an assumed name. George E. Stone, a bandleader who is also the son of an alumni rower, sets the rowing rhythm for the men by playing jazz harmonica. Romantic rivalries, academic problems, and a fierce competition with a neighboring campus (not to mention Hull's fake identity and McHugh's phony letters) all lead to complications which are resolved predictably in the last five minutes. The sports aspect of the plot is the only one which gets any development. The romance between Ellis and Hull is lifeless--the actors are OK, but they don't get much screen time as a couple so we don't care what happens between them. As far as the musical side, there are three songs, two of which are realistically presented as entertainment, but one (the title song) is framed as an anemic, low budget version of a Busby Berkeley number in a soda fountain and it really doesn't belong. It is fun to see Stone, who usually plays comic relief tough guys (as in the Boston Blackie films), stray so far from type as a 30s' version of a collegiate hipster. Worth seeing as a novelty. [TCM]

Sunday, May 13, 2007

THE BARONESS AND THE BUTLER (1938)

An attempt at a frothy class-conscious romantic comedy that doesn’t quite gel. William Powell (wonderful as usual) is the indispensable butler to a Hungarian count (Henry Stephenson) who is also Prime Minister. Unbeknownst to the family, Powell is running for a seat in Parliament as a member of the Social Progressives, who are directly opposed to Stephenson's policies. It isn't until Powell's unexpected win is announced on the radio that the family finds out what happening. Stephenson actually seems pleased, especially when he finds out that Powell wants to stay on as butler, but the rest of the family, including the wife (Helen Westley) and daughter (Annabella, just Annabella) aren't so happy. Powell quickly becomes a popular opposition figure, and the movie's best scene occurs during one of his fiery speeches in Parliament, during which Annabella, in a fit of anger, throws her purse at him, sparking a free-for-all throwing match. Soon Stephenson loses a vote of confidence and has to give up his office, which doesn’t bother him nearly as much as the prospect of losing Powell as a butler. Meanwhile, Powell and Annabella fall in love, although she already has a passive and effete husband (Joseph Schildkraut, looking exactly like Jack Cassidy) and an older admirer (the blustery Nigel Bruce). Despite the threat of blackmail, there is, of course, a happy, if somewhat abrupt ending. Annabella is a French actress who only made a handful of movies in America; she's fine here, though her thick accent is a little disconcerting, given that all the other Hungarian characters speak in American or English accents. Lynn Bari has a small role as a maid. [FMC]

Thursday, May 10, 2007

CHARLEY'S BIG-HEARTED AUNT (1940)

The play "Charley's Aunt" by Brandon Thomas is a famous stage farce first performed in the 1890's and still revived occasionally. The most famous film versions are the 1941 Jack Benny film and a 1956 musical version with Ray Bolger (and oddly, neither version is readily available for viewing these days). The only one I'd seen until now is a 1930 film with Charlie Ruggles, who seemed a bit too old to play the lead, an Oxford student who dresses in drag to impersonate a fellow student's aunt so his buddies can have a chaperoned visit with some co-eds--though, to be fair, Benny and Bolger were certainly no closer to the age of a real undergrad. This version, a relatively low-budget affair from England, is actually a clever variation on the play rather than a direct adaptation. Arthur Askey plays an undergrad who is playing the lead in an Oxford production of "Charley's Aunt." When he and his roomies get in trouble for some drunken shenanigans, Askey is barred from leaving his room. His friends manage to sneak him out so he can perform in the play, but the proctor (Felix Aylmer) recognizes him onstage and a merry chase ensues in the auditorium and across campus. The whole lot are threatened with being "sent down" (British term for expulsion), but when they find out that Aylmer needs $5000 to finance an Egyptian dig, they tell him a story about a visiting Aunt Lucy, who is rich and just happens to be interested in Egyptology, the assumption being that if Aylmer stops their expulsion, she'll help fund his trip. Askey dresses up as Aunt Lucy, but there are two things he doesn't know: 1) the real Aunt Lucy, related to roomie Albert (Graham Moffatt), was a barmaid in Oxford in her younger years and a few of the school masters, including Aylmer, remember her fondly; 2) she (Jeanne de Casalis) is on her way to Oxford to confront her nephew about his frivolous spending. Of course, farcial antics follow, the funniest of which involves Askey (in drag) canoeing with a flirtatious Aylmer and both of them winding up in the water. Overall, this is a fun little confection, and if you know something about "Charley's Aunt," you'll have even more fun with the references to the original, like a recurring line about "where the nuts come from" which makes no sense here otherwise. An actor named Richard Murdoch plays one of the roomies, nicknamed "Stinker," and he is billed in the credits as Richard (Stinker) Murdoch. [TCM]

Monday, May 07, 2007

THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931)

Howard Hawks prison melodrama which provides a nice showcase for Walter Huston as the star and also for Boris Karloff in a juicy supporting role. Meek and mild Phillips Holmes gets a bit drunk and is arrested for attacking a man he claimed was trying to assault his girlfriend. The man dies and Holmes is charged with manslaughter. Huston, the district attorney, notes that a good lawyer could get Holmes off, but he goes after the kid since what he calls the "criminal code" calls for "an eye for an eye." Holmes gets 10 years and the sympathy of his cellmates, one of whom is Karloff, embittered because when he was out on parole, he was caught by a cop drinking a beer at a speakeasy and tossed back in the slammer. Years pass and Huston is appointed warden of the prison. On his first day, he shows the men who's in charge when he quells a "yammering" protest in which the men congregate in the prison yard and loudly chatter nonsense syllables. Holmes learns that his mother has died and he has a breakdown. Huston, remembering his case, makes him his personal chauffeur and for a while, Holmes improves, partly because he gets a crush on Huston's daughter (Constance Cummings), and the warden begins working on a parole for the boy. When prisoner Clark Marshall squeals on some guys planning a breakout, Huston knows that he'll be a marked man and feels responsible for his life, so he puts Marshall in a room off of his own office, but Karloff, in a well-staged and suspenseful scene, manages to sneak in and kill Marshall. Holmes sees the crime but won't rat out Karloff, instead winding up facing the murder charge himself. Huston realizes that Holmes didn't do it but is following another criminal code: don’t snitch. The final sequence is tense and satisfying. Huston is solid and commanding, as usual, and Karloff is equally good at being a slimy bad guy with whom you also sympathize. (This came out in Jamuary of 1931, and between this and his breakout role as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN in November, he appeared in twelve other movies!) It's based on a play and some scenes are a bit talky, but overall this remains a highly watchable film, mostly due to good acting all around. [TCM]

Friday, May 04, 2007

THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955)

I was afraid I had come to this movie at a disadvantage, having seen the recent remake with Ralph Fiennes but not having read the original Graham Greene novel. Since it's about religion and extramarital passion, two topics considered controversial under the old Hollywood Production Code, I assumed the 50's version could not hold a candle to the 90's version which had the freedom to be open about both themes, but though the Fiennes version is indeed much more explicit in its depiction of the affair, it is not as good a film (in look, acting, or writing) as the first. During WWII, Van Johnson is a wounded American soldier who has been discharged and has decided to stay in London to pursue a writing career. Because he's writing a novel about a civil servant, he befriends one (Peter Cushing) to learn about his life. At a party, he sees Cushing's wife (Deborah Kerr) stealing a clandestine kiss with another man and is immediately attracted to her. They begin an affair, though he is bothered that she can lie to Cushing so easily and that she has no problem leaving him after their stolen moments to return to her husband's drab world. We see them make fun of a street corner speechmaker (Michael Goodliffe) screaming of his anger at God (a plot point which will be important later). During a leisurely afternoon rendezvous at his flat, a bomb strikes the building, pinning an unconscious Johnson under debris. Kerr, thinking him dead, goes to a window, sinks to her knees and appears to pray. A few minutes later, a dazed but not seriously hurt Johnson enters the room, saying he feels like he came back from a long journey. After this incident, she refuses to see him, and he thinks it's because she was hoping he had died. A year later, Johnson encounters Cushing, who believes that Kerr is having an affair, and a jealous Johnson, still smarting from her rejection, hires a detective (John Mills) to follow her. Sure enough, she is seen having afternoon meetings with a man named Smythe. When Mills steals her diary, however, Johnson reads it and realizes that all is not as it appears, and we get an extended flashback presenting her side of the events of the narrative so far. It turns out that when she thought Johnson was dead, she prayed to God, offering to give Johnson up if He would let him live. The man she was seeing on the sly was the angry atheist Goodliffe, whom she was hoping could talk her into turning her back on God and going back to Johnson. (She also sees a Catholic priest, apparently in an attempt to be fair, but his advice isn't what she thinks it will be.) There are a few more surprises yet to come, including a final meeting between Johnson and Kerr before the tragic ending. This is a serious attempt to tell a story about the effect of religious belief on people who have never thought much about spirituality, or what passes for such in our culture. I like that it doesn't come down unequivocally on one side or the other, and oddly it actually seems a bit more sophisticated about the issue than the 1999 film. Kerr is great; Johnson, though he takes a little getting used to in such a serious role, is fine, and the two work up some sparks. Mills is a scene stealer and Cushing is quite good in what wound up being one of his rare featured non-horror roles. I hope to read the book someday and I might wind up wanting to revise my comments, but for the time being, I would recommend this version wholeheartedly. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

ARROWSMITH (1931)

Early John Ford film, not the kind of action movie he became known for, but an excellent example of a director overcoming the drabness of the early talkie style to forge an effective sound style. Ronald Colman stars as Martin Arrowsmith, whom we meet as a medical student who wants to be a research doctor but is convinced to put in some time as an M.D. He meets a no-nonsense nurse (Helen Hayes) whom he marries, opens a small town practice, and does research on a cure for a cattle disease. A local veterinarian resents his meddling (and his single-minded aim causes him to be absent when Hayes suffers a miscarriage), but his discovery gets his name known and allows him to go to work in New York City doing research (in a fabulous art-Deco high rise) under the auspices of his former mentor (A.E. Anson). His first major discovery, an anti-bacterial breakthrough, gets blown up in the press (deliberately, by the clinic's PR guy) and then fizzles out when they discover that Louis Pasteur got there first. Soon Colman, inspired by another mentor (Richard Bennett), decides to go to the West Indies to experiment on a serum for bubonic plague; when told he will need to give half the sufferers a placebo in order for their tests to be valid, he resists at first, but then agrees. However, the plague winds up hitting home, with both Hayes and Bennett succumbing, and Colman, after a drunk scene which climaxes with him yelling, "To hell with science," gives the serum out to all. In the end, he turns his back on big-time research and goes off to Vermont with a pal (Russell Hopton) to do independent work.

Thematically, what I find interesting is that in the battle between "heartless" scientific research and humanitarianism, there seems to be no clear winner; I didn't see a strong attempt made at delineating good and bad characters, just different ways of looking at a situation. The one thing I believe is being critiqued is the desire for fame and glory, which is exactly what Colman gives up in the end. The film looks fantastic, and its visual style (shadows, gliding camera movements, and some spectacular sets) helps get the viewer through some sluggish sections. A few scenes are memorable for their startling backgrounds, especially a lecture in which a huge map dwarfs the speaker, and a restaurant scene played before a large tilted wall mirror. The way in which Hayes contracts the plague is absurd (Colman leaves an open vial of plague virus lying on the coffee table) but the camerawork makes it a memorable sequence. The acting is mostly fine--I have no problem with Colman but Hayes is rather bland. Myrna Loy has a small role as a woman with whom Colman has a one-night stand during his plague duty (another nicely shot moment), David Landau continues his string of mean, cranky characters as the vet who opposes Colman's cattle research, and Clarence Brooks plays a completely non-stereotypical black doctor, a common enough role now but rare when this film was made. A bit slow at times, but interesting to see for its visual style. [TCM]