Sunday, September 30, 2007


This, like CROWN VS. STEVENS, is another TCM premiere of a British Warner Brothers "quota quickie" which has rarely been screened in the States. It's a thriller with a circus setting and, though the pace slackens a bit here and there, it's entertaining. Ben Lyon and his brother David Farrar own a struggling traveling circus, with Lyon running the business end and Farrar performing in the starring acrobat act with Anne Crawford, with whom Farrar is also romantically involved. One night, down-and-out Herbert Lom comes around looking for a job; there are none to be had, but when a lion escapes and threatens the circus folk, Lom is able to calm it down and return it to its cage. It turns out that Lom, a puny, bullied kid in his youth, discovered he had an ability to control animals, and he became a hypnotist. Lyon winds up hiring him to hypnotize Crawford so she can perform a backwards highwire slide without using a balance. The act turns the circus into a big draw, but it also creates tension behind the scenes: 1) Farrar becomes jealous of Lom (who is exerting more and more control over Crawford out of the ring); 2) everyone else gets pissed off when Lyon, in order to keep Lom around, agrees to make him a full-fledged partner in the business; 3) sharpshooter Josephine Wilson in particular distrusts Lom and doesn't hide her feelings. Lom confesses his love to Crawford, but she tells him that she could never forget Farrar. He seems to back off, but instead he hypnotizes Crawford into getting tired during the climax of her trapeze act with Farrar, causing Farrar to take a fall. He is seriously injured, and no one knows the reason for the accident, though Wilson suspects Lom played a part. The circus becomes even more popular until one night when the still crippled Farrar returns to watch a new hypnosis stunt involving Crawford sitting in a chair on the wire over a flame pit. The stunt turns deadly, but not quite in the way we suspect.

Lyon is his usual stuffy self, but despite getting first billing, his role is relatively minor. Farrar (best known for BLACK NARCISSUS) and Crawford are quite good as the central couple, but Lom (later Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies) shines as the mysterious Svengali figure. While not handsome, he is striking here with his short stature, dark looks, black suits, and heavy Austrian accent; he looks at times like a cross between Peter Lorre and Charles Boyer. There is some fun to be had from the comic relief figures of the portly ringmaster (Fredrick Burtwell) and his skinny, shrewish wife (Elsie Wagstaff). The characters are nicely fleshed out for a B-film like this; for example, William Hartnell, who played Dr. Who in the 1960's, plays the circus PR man and though he is not particularly important to the plot, he does come across as a fairly well-rounded character. I have no idea what the title refers to; perhaps the giant lift that Lom and Crawford use to get up to the trapeze in the final scene. The script was based on a play by George S. Kaufmann and Alexander Woollcott, but I can't imagine that much of the original remains. [TCM]

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Lyle Talbot is "3-Star" Halsey, a hot shot pilot for Trans America Airlines. He's sweet on stewardess Ann Dvorak, who loves him but is mildly disapproving of his showboating ways. More sensible pilot George (Gordon Westcott) also likes Ann, but mostly stays out of the way. A government man (Henry O'Neill) wants Talbot and his co-pilot, Ann's brother Tom, to take a job flying a scientist and his top-secret explosive to Washington, but when we see that an assistant (Arthur Pierson) has bugged the office and heard the conversation, we know there is skullduggery afoot. Sure enough, Westcott is a bad guy, and when Talbot is waylaid via fisticuffs over a pinball game, Westcott flies the plane instead. It explodes in mid-air and we discover that Westcott, who planned the whole thing, stole the explosive and parachuted out of the plane just before it exploded, leaving co-pilot Tom and the scientist to die. Dvorak comes upon Westcott and his cronies and they plan to get her to smuggle the explosive to Tijuana, but Talbot eventually comes to the rescue. This is a decent enough second feature, and Talbot makes a good hero, though Dvorak is rather bland as his romantic interest. The flying footage is good, even when it involves miniatures. I liked the fact that in the climactic air chase, the bad guy's plane is black. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Chris (Patric Knowles) is a young up-and-comer at an interior design firm run by the middle-aged Mr. Stevens. He's in love with a tramp named Mamie (who clearly doesn't deserve him) and he brings her a ring he's planning to buy for her if he gets a raise. He has the ring out "on approval" from a pawnbroker and moneylender named Blayleck, but Mamie won't give it back, and his boss won't give him a raise, so Chris goes to Blayleck's hoping to work something out. When he gets there, he finds the man dead and a woman with a gun leaving the scene, claiming she killed him in self-defense. He lets her go and takes advantage of the situation to burn Blayleck's account book so any evidence of his debt is gone. When the death makes the news, he struggles a bit with his conscience, but life goes on and he begins dating Molly (Glennis Lorimer), a client of his. While running an errand for his boss one day, he meets Doris, the boss's wife (Beatrix Thomson), and is startled to discover that she is the woman who killed Blayleck. She has a hard-luck story about needing money that her stingy husband wouldn't give her and getting in over her head with the moneylender, leading to his death. Chris agrees to remain silent, and soon Doris, who becomes something of a party girl, hatches a fairly ingenious plot to kill her husband. When Chris finds out about it, will he step in and risk exposing his own role in the death of Blayleck?

This rarely-seen early effort from British director Michael Powell was aired recently on TCM in a series of films made by Warner Brothers in England as "quota quickies," films made cheaply and quickly to satisfy a government demand that foreign studios operating in England produce a certain percentage of homegrown product. While nothing here indicates that Powell would eventually become a film legend (THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS, PEEPING TOM), this is a briskly paced B-thriller (not, as its title might indicate, a courtroom drama) with a couple of nice plot twists and an almost noir-like feel, though this was produced a few years before the noir style would be "invented." Thomson seems too bland and subdued at first to be an effective femme fatale, but she grew on me. Knowles, who soon became a busy supporting actor in Hollywood, is remarkably handsome and appealing, even though he's playing a somewhat passive male who can't take control of any aspect of his life until the last few minutes of the film. (As young and good looking as he is here, there was a weird moment when he looked exactly like Elisha Cook Jr., the gunsel in MALTESE FALCON.) Davina Craig is a comic-relief maid who plays a crucial role in the finale--and sounds like the "Computer says No…" woman in the British comedy series Little Britain. I enjoyed this unpretentious, unheralded film, aired in a beautiful pristine print, and I picked up a new saying: "Oh, go sit on a tack or something!" [TCM]

Sunday, September 23, 2007


These two movies, both based on the same novel, are old-fashioned sentimental family melodramas of the "ungrateful children are sharper than serpent’s teeth" variety. Since the '39 version is virtually a scene-by-scene remake, I'll let its plot summary of the first version stand here for both films. The story begins with the famous Chicago fire of 1871. In its aftermath, Lionel Barrymore (made up, not terribly well, to look like a young man) arrives in town to join the rebuilding boom. He founds a department store which is wildly successful; his wife has four children and dies during the birth of the fourth. Once the children are grown up, Barrymore hopes they will make him proud, with the sons going into the business and the daughter making a good marriage, but they all wind up disappointments. Gene, the oldest (William Gargan), lives the high life in Paris and comes home with a low-class woman who shoots a man while drunk, though Barrymore manages to cover up the incident to avoid scandal. Freddie, the youngest (Eric Linden), has no desire to work in retail, but falls for a lowly clerk (Helen Mack) whom Barrymore pays off to leave his son alone. When Linden openly rebels, Barrymore throws him out and he becomes a wandering bum. Burt, the quiet son (George Meeker), works diligently at his job as window dresser, but is unhappy when his father tries to promote him. The daughter Phoebe (Gloria Stuart) makes a bad marriage with a slimy European prince. The whole time, Barrymore doesn't see that the person who should be heir to the store is right under his nose: his loyal business partner. Gregory Ratoff, who undergoes several humiliations at Barrymore's hand yet continues to hope that he'll be rewarded for his years of service. At the climax, Ratoff is goaded by Barrymore into revealing that he has bought the children's shares in the business; this causes Barrymore to collapse, leading to the inevitable family reconciliation scene, with Linden winding up as the old man's last best hope. All the acting is good, with Ratoff a standout. Of the kids, Gargan and Linden get the most screen time and they're both fine. I wish the lovely and talented Stuart had more to do. Alan Dinehart, as Barrymore's brother, gets a memorable Christmas death scene, and Ninetta Sunderland (Walter Huston's wife) is good in her brief role as the matriarch.

THREE SONS is the B-movie remake. William Gargan appears in both versions, and the only major plot difference is that the uncle (played here by Gargan) is the man who gets shot by the mistress. Edward Ellis is the patriarch, Kent Taylor is the eldest son, Dick Hogan is the youngest, and J. Edward Bromberg is the ignored partner. Two young actors won parts in the movie through a national talent hunt: Virginia Vale plays the sister and Robert Stanton is Burt, who in this version wants to lead a ragtime band, and gets to sing a song. Stanton later changed his name to Kirby Grant (his birth name) and became famous as the star of the TV series Sky King. The acting is mostly fine. Ellis is no Barrymore, but he is more restrained in the role and fits it well; Bromberg is as good as Ratoff was. Gargan is only a few years older than the actors playing the sons, and the makeup used to age him isn't convincing. The earlier film is more atmospheric but the later film flows a bit more naturally. [TCM]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

CORSAIR (1931)

An action melodrama directed by Roland West, who, after making a name in silent films, directed only three talkies (the other two being ALIBI and THE BAT WHISPERS) before retiring to run a restaurant. My understanding is that West was something of an early "indie" director, working just outside the Hollywood mainstream, which might explain the primitive, stagy moviemaking punctuated occasionally by the use of interesting visual style and atmosphere. We first see Chester Morris as a college football hero being flirted with at a high society party by snooty Thelma Todd. A year later, he's working for her stockbroker father (Emmett Corrigan), but isn't comfortable there, and when he refuses to cheat an old lady by selling her bad stock, he's fired (and dumped by Todd, who nevertheless remains interested). Morris and his college buddy Frank McHugh wind up working for bootlegger Fred Kohler, whose main customer is Corrigan. Soon Morris is using his ship, the Corsair, to hijack Kohler's liquor with some inside help from Corrigan's secretary (Mayo Methot) and her boyfriend (Ned Sparks); then he sells it at higher prices back to Corrigan. The insiders' method is far-fetched but ingenious: Methot uses her typewriter keys to send a Morse code message to Sparks, listening just outside the window. However, Corrigan catches on and plants bombs in champagne crates that he knows Morris will try to steal. Sure enough, he does, though he's brought thrill-seeking Todd (and her femme boyfriend William Austin) with him this time. All hell breaks loose in the well-done climactic scene, which includes a horrifying moment when the bad guys drown someone by dropping him into the ocean with weights tied to his feet. The pre-Code ending, which allows Morris to remain unpunished by the law and Todd to remain a spoiled, nasty piece of work, is quite satisfying. Methot, who never became a big star, is remembered now mostly as Humphrey Bogart's first wife. [DVD]

Monday, September 17, 2007


A once-hot model and actress (Tuesday Weld) has been institutionalized after suffering a breakdown; her story is told in flashbacks, more or less chronologically, though in disjointed fashion, punctuated with flash-forwards to her heavily sedated life in a sanitarium. After escaping small town life in Nevada and becoming a famous model, she is discovered by director Adam Rourke and cast in a small-budget film called "Angel Beach" (sort of like Easy Rider if it had been made by Andy Warhol) which becomes a surprise hit. She marries Rourke and has a child who is brain damaged and lives away from home. Her marriage starts to fall apart and she has a few one-night stands with other men, resulting in an abortion. Her best friend is Anthony Perkins, the producer of Rourke's movies and a closeted gay man married to Tammy Grimes, who is paid by Perkins' mother to stay married to him, for appearance's sake, even though he has no compunction about sharing his beach house with hot young tricks. Feeling adrift, Weld goes back to her hometown to find herself, but finds nothing. She makes a stab at reconciling with Rourke, who is in Las Vegas shooting his next movie, but that falls through as well. She hears the story of a man who went into the desert to talk to God and was found dead of a snake bite. In the last scene, she and Perkins, in a hotel room avoiding a night on the town with friends, discuss the abyss before he takes a handful of Seconals and dies in her lap, which apparently triggers Weld's breakdown.

This is based on a novel by Joan Didion, whose books I can never get through. Most critics disparage the movie by saying the novel is better (isn't that almost always the case?), but I found this to be quite intriguing. It is a product of its time, both in terms of plot and style, but if you can get past the surface, it doesn't feel all that dated. One critic has noted that this film, directed by Frank Perry, bears comparison to the work of David Lynch, an interesting comment, though not one I would take too far, partly because this film has a strong narrative thread, even though it takes a while to piece together the fragments. Even after I had figured out the chronology, there were still things that weren't clear, particularly about the Weld character, her background (did she have a history of fragility or are we supposed to think that Hollywood destroyed her?), and her career (did she make more than one movie?). There is lots of dialogue in the film but little communication, which is one reason why the characters remain vague. The editing style is a mix of 60's choppiness and long single takes. Weld is very good in a role that calls for someone who seems a little detached; she doesn't so much spin out of control as wind down. Perkins is excellent, giving a tic-free performance that is miles away from Norman Bates, even though both characters do have "mother trouble," and he and Weld have great "best friend" chemistry; as I recall, they were also good together in PRETTY POISON. I wonder if this is the first Hollywood movie to use the word "dildo" (twice!) and show someone (a Marlboro Man-type actor played by Tony Young) using poppers during sex. My favorite line, from Weld in a restaurant in reaction to a comment on her "existential" performance in her movie: "Existentially, I'm getting a hamburger." [Sundance]

Saturday, September 15, 2007

I AM A THIEF (1934)

Jewel thieves, romance, and murder on the Orient Express--sounds like fun, and some of it is, but for a short movie (one hour), too much of it drags. There has been a rash of jewel robberies in Paris and an insurance company, tired of making large payoffs, hatches a plan to catch the crooks by using an auction of the famous Karenina diamonds as bait. Suave Ricardo Cortez gets the diamonds, beating roughneck Texan Dudley Digges; when Cortez gets on the Orient Express (with nervous insurance man Hobart Cavanaugh), Digges joins him and eventually talks him into selling the diamonds, and they are stolen soon after. Who's behind it? There is a slew of mysterious characters on the train, including potential femme fatale Mary Astor, a perpetually arch-eyed baron (Robert Barratt), a count (Irving Pichel), and a befuddled looking old man (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Most of the enjoyment a viewer might get from this film depends on figuring out the good guys from the bad, with none of the main characters being who they seem at first to be, so I'll avoid spoilers, though if I figured out the puzzle halfway through, anyone can. Eventually, there is a murder, a gathering of suspects right out of an Agatha Christie movie, and an extra (though predictable) twist near the end. Astor looks good but seems a bit hemmed in by having to be quiet and mysterious for more than half the movie; Cortez is fine and the rest of the familiar supporting faces do their usual good, if unremarkable, work. Directed by Robert Florey, who remained a name in B-films through the 40's and later did a fair amount of TV work, including Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. [TCM]

Friday, September 14, 2007


A colorful, sentimental, rustic melodrama of life in Ozark Mountains among the moonshiners. This is not the kind of movie I would normally gravitate toward, but a friend recommended it so I gave it a shot. The film is based on a very popular novel from 1907 which had already been filmed twice and was filmed again in the 60's. John Wayne plays Matt Mathews, a strapping young man who belongs to a group of people who make their living selling illegal moonshine made in their hidden mountain stills. He believes he lives under a curse: his father left home when Wayne was a child, his mother died soon after, and he thinks he can't live a normal life until he has avenged his mother's death by killing his father. He's sweet on chirpy little Betty Field, but his dead mother fixation won't let him even consider married life until he lifts the curse. One day, a kindly older stranger (Harry Carey) arrives in the mountains just after a revenue agent has shot and wounded Field's father. Carey helps to save the man's life and Field takes a shine to him. He tells her he wants to buy land in the area, specifically Moanin' Meadow, where Wayne's family once lived, though now it's considered haunted. The mountain folk don't take kindly to strangers, but Field tells them all that Carey is her cousin, and after he saves the life of a sick child, he is generally accepted. Carey makes an offer to cranky Beulah Bondi, matriarch of the moonshiners and owner of the land; she is suspicious but he offers her enough money that she can't refuse. Wayne isn't crazy about Carey at first, but slowly warms to him. Soon, Field figures out that Carey is Wayne's father, who hopes to eventually strike up a relationship with him again; Wayne never knew that Carey abandoned his dying wife because he was serving time in prison. Carey and Field think that the mountain folk are spending too much time wrapped in the moonshine business and spending all their spare time scared of outsiders, and they set about making the acquisition of alcohol a low priority. As their crusade succeeds, the Bondi gang gets itchy, realizing that their easy living may be coming to an end. The catalyst for the climax comes when Carey pays to have old blind mountain woman Marjorie Main get an operation to restore her sight. At a family celebration, the newly sighted Main recognizes that Carey is Wayne's father, setting off a struggle for a gun that kills the sweet but simple-minded Pete (Marc Lawrence), and Wayne sets off to kill Carey. If you've seen THE SEARCHERS, you'll figure out how things end up.

I stayed with the movie, but wasn't crazy about the main performers. Wayne is a bit wooden, Field does an unconvincing job with the backwoods language and accent, and though Carey is dignified, he also never fully inhabits his role. I enjoyed more the rich supporting cast, including some actors who do a nice job working against type, like Bondi as a thoroughly nasty old lady (so different from kindly Mrs. Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) and the usually lively Main in a low-key role. Lawrence, who played slimy goons in 40's noir pictures, is unrecognizable here as the damaged innocent who meets a tragic end. Filmed in Technicolor, the film looks lovely, with some of it shot on location (mostly in California), but the mountain homes look too, well, Hollywood to be effective. Field’s spacious "shack" in particular reminded me of a rustic version of a suburban home in a 50's Douglas Sirk movie. [DVD]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Jane Wyman passed away yesterday; while she was highly acclaimed for her later work, from the mid-40's on, I enjoy her early work in B-films and screwball comedies more (films like FLIGHT ANGELS and PUBLIC WEDDING). This romantic fantasy set in Manhattan during WWII is very much like the lovely Judy Garland film THE CLOCK, but with a dollop of tragedy and a strong (and rather unexpected) element of the supernatural thrown in. Wyman is a pleasant young woman who has an office job with Excelsior Shoes; she lives in a small apartment with her mother (Josephine Hutchinson), a woman who has grown old and ill before her time because she never got over her husband abandoning his family several years ago. Wyman takes care of her and socializes occasionally with Eileen Heckart, a co-worker. One afternoon, while waiting for a downpour to end, a handsome, sweet-talking, and somewhat whimsical soldier (Van Johnson) strikes up a conversation with her and charms his way into an invitation home for dinner. He finds out that Wyman's father was an aspiring musician who left behind an unfinished song which Johnson plays at the piano, raising all sorts of bittersweet memories for Hutchinson. Despite the mother's warning that all men are no good, Wyman spends that Saturday on a casual day-long date with Johnson (and chaperone Heckart) which involves the theatre, dinner at a fancy French restaurant (where, unknown to Wyman, her missing father, William Gargan, plays piano) and attendance at a storefront auction where Wyman buys an old Roman coin which she gives to Johnson as a good-luck piece. They have a lovely Sunday together in Central Park; he also manages to write lyrics for Gargan's song and gets a human interest story published in the New York Times. Of course, it's all too good to last and on Monday, Johnson is called up for overseas duty; as he leaves, he tells her he'll love her forever. Three months later, after writing to him every day, she finds out that he was killed in combat. She has what would now be called a breakdown, barely able to function, and a cold she catches turns into pneumonia. She lights candles at St. Patrick's Cathedral and gets some counseling from a sympathetic priest, but also expresses her doubt about the existence of a cruel god who would take Johnson away from her. Heckart and Hutchinson try to help her, and even Gargan is inspired to return home, but she continues spiraling downward until she winds up weak and feverish on the steps of St. Patrick's during a rainstorm and has a life-changing vision, the title miracle in the rain, which shows her that love may indeed be eternal.

[SPOILER follows] There are two things that most critics dislike about this film. The first, the overly literal representation of life after death that ends the film (Johnson's ghost leaves her with the Roman good-luck coin she had given to him), is indeed hard to swallow, though the ending narration, which states that the story was told to the narrator and he wants to believe it, helps mitigate that a bit. Until the end, the film has seemed quite realistic (well, Hollywood romantic realism, in which people who look like Wyman and Johnson don't already have dates) and when realism gives way to a murky marriage of Catholic mysticism and campfire ghost story in the last moments, the audience is not prepared--unlike, let's say, the ending of fantasies like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or THE BISHOP'S WIFE, in which the fantasy world is set up from the beginning. The other problem for critics is the plethora of supporting characters and side plots: in addition to Heckart and Hutchinson, there's the father and his songwriting, the shoe company boss (Fred Clark) and his extramarital affair with one of the secretaries (Peggie Castle), a newlywed sailor (Alan King) and his chorus-girl wife (Barbara Nichols) whom Wyman and Johnson meet in Central Park, and a few others as well--future Laugh-In star Arte Johnson has a small role as an office boy. I think the colorful subplots add to the movie, though Gargan's story, which has a lot of promise, isn't developed as well as it should be. Ultimately, for me, the movie works because Wyman and Johnson are both very convincing, even better than Garland and Robert Walker were in THE CLOCK. Wyman made more acclaimed movies (JOHNNY BELINDA, THE YEARLING, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS), but I like this one the best of all her later starring vehicles. [DVD]

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Modest B-thriller from Monogram, though in acting and looks, it's a cut above their usual low-budget fare. Edmund Lowe, the Mr. Gregory of the title, is a mystic; we first see him with his assistant (Frank Reicher) as he is brought out of the Kalamudra Death Trance, a state of suspended animation which he can stay in for days. He's a magician by trade and one night, he meets Jean Rogers backstage and becomes smitten. At a party, he shows her husband (Don Douglas), as a parlor trick, how to tie a rope into a deadly garrote for easy strangling. Later in the evening, Lowe tries to lay a love trance on Rogers. Douglas punches him, though it has no effect on Lowe, who has become more or less invulnerable (except, as he says to Reicher, to "the hangman's noose or an assassin's bullet"). The next day, Lowe sends a dozen roses to Rogers with a note that he will send one less rose each day he has to wait for her. Understandably, this freaks her out a bit and soon Douglas goes to Lowe's place to tell him to lay off. However, after Douglas leaves, Reicher finds Lowe dead, garroted with a rope. *We* know all about that goofy Death Trance, so it's no surprise when, after Douglas is arrested, Lowe shows up again as Gregory's twin brother, Lane Talbot (why the different last name, I never figured out). In that guise, he gets Douglas off the hook by telling the court that his brother was a dangerously insane man, which also gets him in Rogers' good graces until she begins to suspect a rat. With some help from her friend (Marjorie Hoshelle) and a lawyer, Lowe eventually gets his comeuppance. The sets are much better than in the typical Monogram programmer, and it undoubtedly helped that this print, shown on TCM, is in remarkable shape, much cleaner than any other Poverty Row film of the era that I've seen. I haven't particularly liked Lowe before--I especially didn’t like him as the lead in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN--but he's fine here, nicely slimy and creepy. There are plot holes, and scenes that fade out about 10 seconds later than they should, but as an hour-long diversion, it does its job nicely. (IMDb says the film is also known as THE GREAT MYSTIC.) [TCM]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


A colorful but bland account of the life of the famous saint. Parts of it work well, but there is too much gravitas here, as though the filmmakers were telling the life of Jesus, or perhaps remaking THE TEN COMMANDMENTS without any sense of humor or spectacle or even camp. In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III (Finlay Currie) is enlisting men to defend the papal kingdom of Sicily. Francis (Bradford Dillman), the carousing son of an upstanding merchant, volunteers to go, along with Paolo (Stuart Whitman), a Sicilian count living in exile in Assisi, but along the way, Francis hears a disembodied voice telling him to turn back. Sure that he's hearing the voice of God, he decides to obey; he is arrested for desertion and is scorned by Paolo, though after the war, Francis's friend Clare (Dolores Hart) talks Paolo into pardoning all deserters. Francis's father (Eduard Franz) throws a party in an attempt to reintegrate his son into the life of the town, but the passive and unworldly Francis baffles everyone. He throws off the trappings of his old life and begins begging for stones to build a new church, and with it a new order of clergy who desire to live in "extreme poverty" as Christ did. He and his little band of monks go to Rome to get papal permission to officially exist in the eyes of the church; the Pope, who has seen Francis in a dream, gives his blessing.

The rest of the film is a colorful, nicely filmed, but dramatically inert pageant of scenes from Francis's life: he loves children and blesses their pets, seems to be able to communicate with wild animals, rejoins the Crusades in order to bring peace to the Holy Land, and (in the film's best scene) tries to convert a Sultan (Pedro Armendariz) by claiming that God will allow him to walk through fire unharmed. He returns home to find his Franciscan order taken over by others (portrayed at first as almost evil but later as just misguided) who have started down the traditional road of collecting money and property to make his order like all the others. Unable to fight, he lives out his last years as a hermit, fasting and going blind. He collapses in a cruciform on the ground, with stigmata, has a reconciliation scene with his old friend Paolo (who has finally gotten over the fact that Clare dissed him to enter a convent, following Francis's lead), and dies. The very last shots, his funeral procession, are the most striking of the film, with flocks of birds following along through the dawn skies (or twilight, I wasn't sure). The acting is so-so, mostly because of the slack characterizations. Dillman is OK; he comes off like a beefier, less intense Anthony Perkins, and in fact Perkins' intensity might have made him a better (if almost certainly creepier) Francis. Hart has a nothing role, though it's worth noting that just two years later, the actress became a nun in real life. Whitman is the only actor who gets to express much emotion, but he's rather wooden. The location shooting is helpful, but doesn't make it worth sitting through. [FMC]

Sunday, September 02, 2007


I must admit that I've never read the Rudyard Kipling classic this film is based on; in my youth I did read a Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation and later saw the Disney version, though my memories of both are dim. This Alexander Korda film looks wonderful, with decent sets shot in lovely Technicolor, but feels a bit awkward in the telling. The narrative, set in and around an Indian village, is framed as a tale told by Buldeo, an old man (Joseph Calleia), to a couple of British tourists. He tells them that "the book of life" is the story of man's war with nature, and we flash back many years to when there were plans to expand the village if the surrounding jungle could be "beaten." One day, a toddler runs away and gets lost in the jungle while his father is attacked and killed by a tiger. The boy winds up in a wolf den, is raised by the wolves, and can communicate with the other animals, such as panthers, snakes, and elephants. Grown into young manhood, the boy (Sabu), on the run from Shere Kahn, the killer tiger, stumbles into the village, naked, barking, and howling. Calleia believes the village should not accept him, saying he has the evil eye, but his mother (Rosemary DeCamp) recognizes him as her lost son and takes him in. She names him Mowgli and teaches him human speech and customs. He takes a liking to Calleia's daughter (Margaret O'Rourke) but her father still distrusts the boy and does everything he can to run him back into the jungle. When Sabu and O'Rourke meet for a moonlight rendezvous, they discover a treasure guarded by a snake; Calleia gets wind of this and he and his greedy friends plan to find the riches for themselves. They do, but ultimately Sabu and the animals make them pay. The biggest obstacle here is that real animals are used and were clearly shot separately from most of the actors, so human/animal interaction is minimal. Most of the movie was shot on elaborate sets, which look fine, though some location footage is rather shakily incorporated here and there. Sabu, only 18 when the film was released, is perfect in the role of the wild boy who is tamed briefly but realizes he cannot be happy in the world of mankind. He appeared in several other jungle epics in the 40's but his career waned as he aged; this may be his finest moment. It's a little startling to see Swedish character actor John Qualen as an Indian barber. Ralph Byrd, later Dick Tracy in the movies and on TV, and Ralph Puglia also appear. I don't think kids today will enjoy this much, but film buffs will appreciate Sabu and the lavish Technicolor, and the huge fire and animal stampede at the film's climax. [DVD]