Saturday, December 29, 2007


Below are my favorite films which I saw and reviewed on my blog for the first time this year, in alphabetical order:

ALL NIGHT LONG (1962): OTHELLO retooled for jazz musicians in swinging London. I like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, but he's at his best here as the Iago character. (reviewed 11/07)

BY WHOSE HAND? (1932): Minor but fun thriller involving murder on a train. Fast paced, and an opportunity to see Dwight Frye play something other than a neurotic toady. (2/07)

A CANTERBURY TALE (1944): An eccentric and fairly minor work in the Powell & Pressburger canon, but nevertheless charming; during WWII, three folks are thrown together by chance and wind up making a pilgrimage of sorts to Canterbury, just like Chaucer's pilgrims. (1/07)

THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955): Graham Greene's religious melodrama, and a better movie than the 90's version; Van Johnson can't touch Ralph Finnes, but he's not bad, and this might be Deborah Kerr's finest moment. (5/07)

HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1950): A Fritz Lang gothic B-thriller with Louis Hayward as a killer with a guilty conscience; low budget, but atmospheric as hell. (3/07)

The I LOVE A MYSTERY series (1945-46): Three very fun B-mysteries, all with some supernatural flavor, based on a popular radio show of the day. THE UNKNOWN is the best, but the others are certainly worth seeing. (12/07)

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936): Others may love the Daniel Day-Lewis version, but give me this one which is shorter and less self-important, and has two hunky men to ogle: Randolph Scott and Bruce Cabot. (5/07)

THE STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (1946): Low-budget horror film about a ghostly killer who haunts a small swamp community. Like HOUSE BY THE RIVER, it gets by on style, rather grim with an intentionally murky look.

T-MEN (1947): Rough and tough film noir from Anthony Mann about two treasury agents who track down some counterfeiters. Good acting, good cinematography, and one of the great noir death scenes, in a steambath. (1/07)

TURNABOUT (1940): Comic fantasy about a husband and wife who mystically switch bodies; this gimmick has become old hat, but this was the first treatment of it I'm aware of, and though it's not terribly deep, it's fun and has a great supporting cast. (1/07)

I had a much harder time than usual narrowing my list down to 10, so it's folly to try and give a short list of runners-up, except to mention the harrowing war film NONE SHALL ESCAPE (3/07) and my rediscovery of one of Edward G. Robinson's greatest performances in ALL MY SONS (6/07). I'm really thankful to Turner Classic Movies for digging into the vaults of Columbia Pictures all year long; their library is wonderful, but many of the Columbia movies have not been seen in many years, and I loved being able to see them--three of my top 10 are Columbia films seen on TCM, and several more just missed my list.

Friday, December 28, 2007


Though I saw CONTEMPT first, this is the earlier film that made Jean-Luc Godard's name as the godfather of the French New Wave. Almost 50 years later, even though the plot twists and stylistic frills (mostly the frequent use of jarring jump cuts) are no longer new, it retains its power to hold an audience's attention, and it doesn't feel "old" at all. It's dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the Poverty Row studio known for its quickie crime and western movies. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a small-time thug, charming but amoral, not conventionally handsome but sexy, who consciously models himself on Humphrey Bogart. When he's chased through the French countryside for speeding in a stolen car, he kills a policeman and flees on foot. In Paris, he meets up with an American girl (Jean Seberg) with whom he had a casual sexual relationship in the recent past (and who is pregnant by him, though neither he nor we know that yet); her means of support seems to be hawking copies of the Herald Tribune on the street, though she's also trying to get a start as a free-lance journalist. The rest of the film follows Belmondo as he drifts about over the next 24 hours, stealing cars, trying to get money owed him by a friend, and trying to bed Seberg. As in CONTEMPT, there is a long and drifting conversational interlude in the middle of the film; the shirtless Belmondo chats with Seberg about everything but sex; at one point, she quotes Faulkner: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." He responds by asking to see her toes, then says he would take "nothing" because grief is a stupid compromise. I think they have sex, but we certainly never see it. By the time he leaves her apartment, his picture is on the front page of the newspapers as the "Highway Killer." When he admits his crime to Seberg, she seems unconcerned; when the cops talk to her, knowing she was seen with him, she protects him, but later, for no discernible reason except to see if she really loved him, she calls the police and tells them where he can be found. As far as I know, we never find out if she loved him or not, but he does meet his fate like a Monogram version of Bogart, shot in the streets, making a "cute" face at Seberg, and pulling his own eyelids shut with his last breath. I didn't feel anything for any of the characters, except maybe a bit of lust for both of the sexy leads, Belmondo, all twitches and snarls, and Seberg, cool and composed. The film doesn't feel improvised but it does feel casual, like the moments of Belmondo's day that we're shown were chosen largely at random. What I've read about Godard's later films doesn't make me think I would like to see much more of his work, but I did enjoy this one. I'm torn about seeing the Richard Gere remake from the 80's--on the one hand, it couldn't possibly be one-tenth as interesting as the original, on the other hand, I hear the Gere character has a thing for the Silver Surfer, and so do I. [Sundance]

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


This big-budget spy/adventure flick was originally shown in the ballyhooed Cinerama format (as was 2001 the year before), so it must have looked especially good to theater audiences of the day. Unfortunately, though it's hardly a disaster, it's not nearly as compelling as it needs to be. A British weather station in the Arctic, code named Ice Station Zebra, has been sending out distress signals. Rock Hudson, a Navy commander, has been assigned by his boss, Lloyd Nolan, to take a team of men up there in a submarine to help out. Nolan lets Hudson know that his official mission is a cover-up for some more important top-secret doings, but he's left in the dark as to what those might be. Though technically in charge of the sub, Hudson has to play second fiddle to British agent Patrick McGoohan who knows exactly what the mission is: a Russian spy satellite (made from stolen British plans) has crashed near the weather station, and the Brits and Americans want to get to it before the Russians do. Also along for the ride: Ernest Borgnine as a Russian who has apparently turned into a spy for the Brits (or has he?) and Jim Brown as a tough Marine captain with a mysterious background. Because of bad weather, the sub has to go up under the ice pack, leading to some damage due to sabotage. Once they break through the ice, they find the station filled with mostly dead men and have to contend with an unknown spy (Could McGoohan be a traitor? Maybe even Hudson?) and a fleet of Soviet paratroopers before all the mysteries are solved. Though not a traditional spy thriller (no trenchcoats, no shadowy alleys, no sexy Bond girls), it is an almost archetypal Cold War drama, especially at its climax, and that kind of "period-drama" appeal makes it worth watching. Hudson is suitably stoic, Borgnine does the Russian shtick to the hilt, but it's McGoohan who is the most fun to watch, partly because he is such a slippery character. Jim Brown is surprisingly good in a role that, you realize after the fact, is pretty small, and handsome Tony Bill is the only other supporting actor to make an impression as an easy-going Marine who is resented by the tough-guy Brown. The sub must certainly be the biggest, roomiest one ever in a Hollywood movie (no claustrophobic atmosphere here). The Arctic sets are colorful and remarkably phony-looking, yet there is still an Old Hollywood charm to them. At 2-1/2 hours, it's way too long, which makes the DVR or a DVD the perfect way to watch it, so you can spread it out over an entire lazy Sunday afternoon. [TCM]

Monday, December 24, 2007

SCROOGE (1970)

I recently wrote a blog post on my Mixed Media site about the various movie versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." I omitted this big-budget studio musical with Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge because I hadn't seen it in many years and, though my memory was that I didn't care for it, I wanted to be fair to it so I dug it up and watched it again. It was actually worse than I remembered it, though that might be because I had just written my post on the other Scrooges (Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Reginald Owen) and perhaps they were shining so brightly in my mind that Finney couldn't compete. At any rate, though this version does have its online fans (see its IMDb entry), it has been largely overlooked by the Pop Culture Christmas Machine, not often heralded in seasonal articles or rerun on cable. Finney was probably a little too young (at 34) to take on the role. Physically, the make-up is fine, but he seems uncomfortable as the old Scrooge and only slightly more comfortable as the younger one. This was made at the end of the big studio musical era in the wake of the success of OLIVER! so they probably figured another Dickens musical would be a sure-fire hit--as far as I know, it was not. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse (probably best known for the original DOCTOR DOLITTLE), are unmemorable and worse, with the sole exception of "Thank You Very Much," which despite a dreadfully banal lyric, has a catchy melody and is the basis of the movie's best production number, a happy funeral march in the streets celebrating the death of Scrooge during his Christmas Future vision. Finney's not a singer so he mostly does a Rex Harrison talk/croak which is not terribly appealing, and he plays the old Scrooge as though he were a stroke victim. The movie is ugly and listless, with only the final musical numbers having the energy and flow which the rest of the film lacks. The look of the film is OK but nothing special. The only other cast members worth mentioning are Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Alec Guinness as Marley's Ghost. There is a bizarre little sequence showing Scrooge falling into his grave and plummeting into Hell, met by Marley and a bunch of beefy demons dragging a massive chain for Scrooge. It's inventive, but it doesn't really fit. Not a terrible movie, but not a success, and if you can only make time for one version of Christmas Carol this season, choose from the Sim, Scott, or Owen, all on DVD. [Laserdisc] (Sorry, I never got around to my annual ritual of watching one made-for-TV holiday movie with a blandly handsome leading man; ABC Family seemed to have a lock on Christmas films this year, but none of them sounded appealing to me.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007


These are the other two "I Love a Mystery" films. In the first one, a shrunken head, which may have been illegally smuggled into the country, is found in the wreckage of a plane. The local museum, which owns a collection of such heads, disavows any knowledge of it, but our detectives, Jack (Jim Bannon) and Doc (Barton Yarborough), get involved with a missing person/love triangle case: the director of the museum went missing while on an expedition in South America, and now his wife (Mona Barrie) thinks someone is trying to kill her. It might be her step-daughter (Anita Louise) who thinks that Barrie is having an affair with Frank Wilcox, a family friend who was along on the expedition. Indeed, Louise has asked her boyfriend, Michael Duane, to keep an eye on Barrie. There's also a taxidermist who keeps a black panther around, a shadowy figure who kills a butler with a poisoned dart from a blow gun, and a headless body. A quote from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" winds up being a clue. Like the first film, this is an entertaining, fast-paced little thriller with a rather convoluted plot filled with fun details.

THE UNKNOWN is a cross between a Faulkner novel and an "old dark house" horror film. It begins with a flashback about a tragic family history, told to us by a woman (Helen Freeman) whose funeral has just been held. She tells us she's to blame for the fact that her three adult children are messed up: one is an unsuccessful sculptor, one is a bitter alcoholic, and the daughter (Karen Morley) is mad, lost in a fantasy world, imagining she is caring for a nonexistent baby. Years before, when she announced to her parents that she secretly wed Robert Wilcox, her father went a little nuts and threatened Wilcox with a gun; Wilcox accidentally killed him then went into hiding; Morley gave birth nine months later, and as she was considered incompetent, the baby was given away. Now, several years later as Freeman's will is about to be read, the grown-up daughter (Jeff Donnell) shows up with Jack and Doc and a lawyer (Robert E. Scott), ready to straighten out her twisted heritage. The will goes missing, one of the brothers winds up dead, and there are various shenanigans involving a secret passage, a family crypt, and a mysterious crying baby before everything gets sorted out. This one is the most fun of the three, partly because the crazy family takes center stage, making the wooden Jack and Doc secondary characters in their own adventure. The Gothic atmosphere is nicely done, though the film can't quite live up to its creepy opening narration by an apparently dead character. These films are above-average for their genre (B-thrillers); it's a shame more weren't made. [TCM]

Friday, December 21, 2007


This B-thriller from Columbia is the first of three films based on a popular radio show from the 40's, also called I Love a Mystery. The show was about three war buddies who run a detective agency in Hollywood, and the stories, according to Thrilling, often delved into Indiana Jones-adventure territory. The films, however, are more like traditional detective tales which involve some bizarre story elements verging on the supernatural (but always explained away by the end), and there are only two detectives, Jack Packard, the more traditional heroic private eye (Jim Bannon), and Doc Long, a drawling Southerner (Barton Yarborough--imagine a slightly less whimsical Kay Kyser).

This one begins with headlines telling about the decapitation, in a car accident, of rich man Jefferson Monk (George Macready). In a flashback, we see Monk get into an altercation at the Silver Samovar, the restaurant which Jack and Doc call their home base. He's being followed by a creepy man with a steel leg, carrying a valise big enough, as Monk puts it, for his head. Monk hires our heroes for protection, and we learn that he is on the run from an ancient secret society that has offered him thousands of dollars for his head; he's apparently a dead ringer for the preserved but deteriorating corpse of the group's founder and they want to replace the corpse's rotting head with his. The living leader of the group, known only as Mr. G, predicts that Monk has one year to live. Understandably, Monk doesn't want to part with his head and doesn't believe G's prediction, but later G predicts that Monk's wife (Nina Foch) will wind up paralyzed, and by gosh, she does. At any rate, Jack and Doc take the case and there are some wild plot twists (some predictable, some not) before the ending. This film has a crammed-full, convoluted plot, but it's handled well enough that it never becomes seriously hard to follow. I can see why the two leads never really made it out of B-movies--they're both awfully wooden--but they don't ruin the movie (and Foch and Macready are both very good). It's quite atmospheric and enjoyable. I'll report on the other two films in the series tomorrow. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Better known in the States as SIDEWALKS OF LONDON, this is a rather bland edge-of-showbiz story set in the world of buskers, street entertainers in England who make their money through "donations" from the public who are waiting in line to see "legitimate" entertainers in theaters and music halls. Charles Laughton plays Charles, a long-time busker who does a little song and dance with his partners Arthur and Gentry, but who specializes in dramatic readings of bad poetry, or maybe bad readings of dramatic poetry. In any case, he's nearing 40 and feeling like he's overdue for a big break. One night, he catches a young dancing girl (Vivien Leigh) who calls herself Liberty, for the statue, trying to steal a coin from his cap. He chases after her, sees her steal a cigarette case from well-to-do songwriter Rex Harrison, and keeps up the chase, cornering her in an empty house. They wind up hitting it off and he lets her stay (platonically) in his shabby little boarding house room. He considers her talented and gets her to join his little group of buskers, but he also falls in love with her, though he never tells her. Leigh winds up invited to a party of Harrison's and he offers her a small part in his show. When she goes back to tell Laughton her good news, he realizes he's going to lose her, so in a pathetic and desperate act, he proposes to her. She humiliates him and runs out for good. In tried and true showbiz melodrama fashion, she eventually becomes a big star (and seems to be living with Harrison, though that’s a bit ambiguous), while Laughton slides downward, giving up busking and becoming a homeless wanderer. While posing as a blind beggar, he has a chance encounter with Leigh which leads to an audition for a show. Laughton shines in this scene, as we see it dawn on him that he just doesn't have what it takes to hit the big time, and the pat ending is neither happy nor sad. Leigh is just OK in an underwritten role, and Harrison barely registers at all. The supporting cast contains two people who didn’t appear in many movies: the renowned British stage director Tyrone Guthrie plays one of Laughton's busking buddies, and Larry Adler, a famous harmonica player and composer of film scores, can be seen as a friend of Harrison's, playing harmonica, of course. [TCM]

Monday, December 17, 2007


I've sampled the "singing cowboy" genre once before (LAND BEYOND THE LAW) and had no truly compelling reason for another trip to that well, but I'd never seen Gene Autry in a movie (I really only know him for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") so I thought I'd give this a whirl. Autry plays himself, kind of, not an actor but a singing cowboy named Gene Autry. The British owner of the ranch Autry works on has died and his young son (Ronald Sinclair), a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type, has arrived in the States with a guardian to sell the land to cranky Bill Elliott. Of course, Autry and his doofus sidekick (Smiley Burnette) had promised the father they would turn the boy into a Real Westerner and they do, rather quickly, nicknaming him "Little Spud." With that plot point out of the way, Autry has to deal with an angry Elliott who is not only mad about losing the ranch, but also mad that he is still owed money by the father's estate, and mad that Autry decides that he and the boy should get into Elliott's business, selling horses to the Army camp nearby. Autry and Elliott both put in identical bids to the Army, so the colonel (Guy Usher) sets up a race to determine the winner--and believe it or not, Autry's men wear white hats and Elliott's wear black! Elliott tries to sabotage the outcome by setting fire to a barn, Autry has a flirtation with the colonel's daughter (Judith Allen), who is pretending she's a maid, and Burnette raises multiple instances of havoc at the Army camp. There is an irritating running gag in which Autry is always shouting at the colonel because he thinks the old man is deaf. There are a few songs, one of which, "Ridin' the Range," is a rather gloomy song about how miserable a cowboy's life is. The Army camp is called Fort Wayne, perhaps in tribute to John Wayne (this film and Wayne's early westerns were made by Republic Pictures). Autry is OK though he doesn't have much of a personality--mostly he displays a mellow sturdiness. A decent little B-western. [DVD]

Friday, December 14, 2007

SALOME (1953)

In Biblical lore, Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod, performed a sexy dance for Herod and, when told he would give her anything she wanted, she asked, at the request of her mother Herodias, for the head of John the Baptist on a platter--apparently because John had been badmouthing the Herod/Herodias marriage as illegitimate. Though Herod was "struck sad," he complied with the request. The story is mentioned in Matthew and Mark (though she is not named) and in the writings of the historian Josephus. In the popular imagination, Salome is usually portrayed as wicked, but when Hollywood went to work on her story as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth, they softened her, almost turning her into a Christian martyr. When we first see John the Baptist (Alan Badel), he is indeed telling the crowds that Herod (Charles Laughton) is living in sin with Herodias (Judith Anderson)--I was never sure what about their relationship made it sinful; perhaps because she is happy to have Herod seek sex outside of their marriage. In Rome, Tiberius Caesar (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, looking a lot like he does as Sethi in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) is bothered by the ruckus that John is kicking up, claiming that a Messiah is coming to overthrow Rome, so he sends Commander Claudius (Stewart Granger) to Galilee to give aid to Herod and Pontius Pilate (Basil Sydney). Caesar also banishes Salome back to Galilee because she's a bad influence (i.e., she's got a reputation as a slut) on his nephew Marcellus (the hunky Rex Reason).

When Salome and Claudius meet on a ship, they engage in a battle of wills but soon are striking romantic sparks. Meanwhile, Herod clearly has a thing for his stepdaughter, and Herodias is plotting the demise of John the Baptist. Claudius, it turns out, is a secret convert to John's teachings and after John is captured, he tries to talk Pilate into freeing John and letting history remember him as having been instrumental in establishing a new religion. Salome, who at first hated John, is brought over to Claudius' side and offers to dance for Herod in public; it will mean that she will become his possession, but it will also mean that he will offer her a favor. She intends the favor to be the freeing of John, but Herodias jumps in with the infamous request for John's head, and the rest is a strange expansion of the lore, with Claudius and Salome escaping the court; the last we see of them, they're listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. The end title: "This was The Beginning." The acting is bland except for Laughton and Alan Badel, both of whom needed some time to get going. Hayworth's Dance of the Seven Veils is effective except for her overly-toothy, Las Vegas-chorus girl grin. Sets and costumes, always important elements in a Biblical epic, are good. Hayworth is lovely, but this is not her finest moment. [TCM]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

HEAD (1968)

When I was done watching this, the Monkees' only feature film, I had no idea how I was going to approach this review. But then it hit me: it's not really a movie, but a long, long episode of the their TV show, or maybe a TV special consisting of unrelated songs and sketches, but instead of being something like "The Monkees' Christmas Special," it's "The Monkees Kiss Their Career Goodbye Special: With Guest Stars and Acid Flashbacks!" It's been quite a while since I've seen a Monkees show, but I remember it as aspiring to (but not reaching) a kind of Marx Brothers quality: vaguely surreal slapstick bits pasted together with paper-thin excuses for narratives. The movie is more of the same, but without any attempt at a narrative thread. (If I were feeling generous, I might say the film also prefigures the comedy of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, but I think I'd have to be higher than the filmmakers to be that generous.) Here are my notes, more or less chronologically, I think:

The film begins with the promise of a storyline as we see Mickey Dolenz, being chased by a small crowd of people including the other Monkees, leaping off of a bridge in the middle of some kind of dedication ceremony. Solarized mermaids swim with him to the tune "The Porpoise Song." Suddenly, the Monkees are about to perform onstage; there's a self-deprecating song/chant that foregrounds the band's manufactured origin and the fragmented nature of the very film we're seeing. Concert footage is mixed with war footage, including the famous clip of the brutal execution, by a pistol to the head, of a Vietnamese man. There's a clip from the 30's horror classic THE BLACK CAT of Bela Lugosi saying, "Supernatural, perhaps; baloney, perhaps not!" Mickey is suddenly in a desert, trying to get a Coke out of an empty Coke machine while a Coke jingle plays, and eventually blasting it to pieces with a tank (a Lawrence of Arabia/Dr. Strangelove reference?). In a war setting, Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke keeps trying to tackle Peter Tork. There follows a scene out of a Western which winds up breaking the fourth wall, a la BLAZING SADDLES, with the cast spilling out into a studio cafeteria (with a cashier who talks like Bette Davis). Davy Jones boxes with Sonny Liston and chats with Annette Funicello about wanting to give up boxing for the violin (a GOLDEN BOY reference?). The Monkees wind up trapped in a huge black box and then realize they are bits of dandruff in the hair of Victor Mature. Peter whistles "Strawberry Fields Forever" while popping a zit. Davy performs Harry Nilsson's "Daddy's Song" (quite badly and purposely, I think) as a soft-shoe. Frank Zappa tells him the song was "pretty white"; Davy's reply: "So am I." Mike Nesmith has a surprise birthday party thrown for him, which upsets him. Peter, repeating what he's been taught by a guru, lectures the others about the "reality of now" and the way we are constantly bombarded with "vividly imagined experiences." Victor Mature returns, as does the desert, and they all wind up back at the beginning of the film, running from a crowd and jumping off a bridge into the ocean. The end.

Individual bits are amusing, and the psychedelica is fun, but the constant riffing on the theme of the Monkees as both lamely artificial and sadly put-upon by their celebrity gets old. Some critics have said that this film was intended to deal a death blow to the Monkee image, and it did, at least until the nostalgia boom of the late 80's brought them back together. On the surface, the film seems like a satire, but too often, it's just referencing pop culture (admittedly a few years before everyone else started doing it as mainstream entertainment) rather than satirizing. Going through the paces of referencing a sequence from DUCK SOUP is not the same as actually commenting on the folly of war. The worst thing of all is that the music isn't very good. I like Monkees music but nothing in the movie is catchy or fun or interesting, with the possible exception of "The Porpoise Song." And Davy Jones sounds bad. I can't say I'm sorry to have seen it (I tried watching a pan-and-scan version of the film years ago on TV and didn't make it past the mermaid scene), but I don't think I'll be returning to it anytime soon. Jack Nicholson co-wrote this and has a cameo. [TCM]

Monday, December 10, 2007


A generally delightful British wartime mystery, a cross between a "cozy" (except the detective isn't a little old lady but a tall middle-aged police inspector) and an "old dark house" thriller (except it's set in a mansion which has been turned by the military into an emergency makeshift hospital). One night, during a bombing raid from German V-1's, aka "doodlebug bombs," a postman who also serves as an air raid rescue worker is injured and brought to the hospital. The man, whose injury is not life-threatening, dies as he is put under anesthetic and the head doctor (Ronald Adam) is concerned about an inquest. Later at a dance, the chief Sister (Judy Campbell) announces that the death was a murder and she knows who was responsible; she is found dead that night. When inspector Alastair Sim arrives to investigate, he considers everyone who was present for the operation a suspect, not just the anesthesiologist (Trevor Howard) who was involved in a similar inquest in the past, but also surgeon Leo Genn, a nurse (Rosamund John) who seems on the verge of a breakdown after the death of her mother in a bombing, and young and pretty Sally Gray, who may be in the middle of a romantic triangle. There are clues and red herrings and fisticuffs, followed by a re-creation of the original operation which leads to a somewhat convoluted solution and a neat last twist involving the fate of the killer. Sim, whom I'm used to seeing in parts that require some dithering, is a solid non-ditherer here, even though his character does mess up one major point near the end. The characters seem real and the wartime setting adds a nice extra touch of atmosphere. The sets are a little stagy but just right. There is some very nice camerawork throughout, especially during the scene that leads up to Campbell's death. The title is actually half-clue, half-spoiler, though its relevance to the proceedings is not made clear until near the end. The Criterion DVD is, as usual, crisp and clear, with a commentary track that sometimes wanders off into repetition. A movie that deserves to be better known, especially to mystery fans. [DVD]

Thursday, December 06, 2007


This is one crazy piece of filmmaking--it has surfaced on Turner Classic during its Oscar month because, against all logic, it was actually up for two awards, best song and best score. It's only about 50 minutes in length, an attempt by producer Hal Roach at making a new kind of movie called a "Streamliner" which was intended to be longer than a short subject and shorter than a feature film. Perhaps for this reason, its plot suffers something fierce, as though it were written as a full-lengther and then chopped down for release; very little of it makes any narrative sense, leaving only the low-budget musical numbers and the bemusing performances to enjoy. And, despite this, it is enjoyable, though not something I'd care to sit through too many more times. The film opens with a drag number performed by the manly boys of the Zeta Fraternity at Quinceton--and just to prove how manly these frat boys are, we see a page of the program which features a picture of lead drag star Johnny Downs in a rough-and-tough boxing pose. Suddenly, we're at Mar Brynn, an all-girl agricultural school. President Esther Dale has cooked up a scheme to boost enrollment by offering a scholarship contest to state fair beauty queens and calling them the "Most Likely to Succeed," and at the same time, taking the opportunity to get more publicity by bashing the Zeta men as "least likely to succeed." Naturally, the Zeta men get furious, and their answer is to send Downs to Mar Brynn, in drag, under the name Bobbie DeWolf, to win one of the scholarships. In a scene on the train to Mar Brynn that feels like it came out of SOME LIKE IT HOT, Downs struggles in his small upper berth to change into full drag while the girls prance around the train singing "Up at the Crack of Dawn." At the school, Downs lives a double life as Bobbie and as himself, more or less (he claims to be Bobbie's music teacher) and winds up helping the contestants put on their talent show and falling in love with co-ed Frances Langford (who looks just a tad long in the tooth to be a co-ed).

The plot gets fairly complicated with some truly dumb plot twists, and it doesn't bear continued relating except to say that Downs and Langford wind up together in the end. The highlights of the film are the musical numbers, notably "Out of the Silence" (the Oscar nominee) and the wacky "The Poor Farmer's Daughter" which has girls dressed up as watermelons, carrots, and corn! Downs is energetic and attractive (he bears a passing resemblance to Jim Hutton) and was in several "Our Gang" shorts in the late 20's; almost equally cute is Kent Rogers, a Zeta man who does impressions of Gary Cooper and James Cagney--Rogers seemed full of talent and promise, but sadly only made a handful of movies before dying in a plane accident during WWII. Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) has a small role as a hayseed frat boy, playing straight man to Noah Berry Jr. Also with Marie Windsor (as a carrot), Allan Lane (later known as Rocky Lane in a series of B-westerns), and Lillian Randolph. Directed by LeRoy Prinz, better known as an Oscar-nominated choreographer. See this loony novelty if you get a chance, but don't worry about putting it too high on your list. [TCM]

Monday, December 03, 2007


Aside from having seen the 1933 and 1994 film versions of "Little Women," I am not particularly well versed in the literature of Louisa May Alcott. Still, I'm guessing that this B-budget version of her sequel to "Little Women" does not stick very closely to the novel. Jo March (Katharine Hepburn in the '33 film, grown up into Kay Francis here) and her immigrant professor husband (Carl Esmond) run Plumfield, a boys boarding school which is in danger of being closed down by the landlord, to whom they owe back rent. The film actually begins with George Bancroft, a ne'er-do-well who runs mail-order scams and sells phony elixirs, being left with an orphan infant via a late operative of his. His first instinct is to dump the kid at an orphanage, but he takes a shine to the baby and raises him as his son. Grown into adolescence, Danny (Jimmy Lydon) is well educated in the ways of gambling and hustling, but the state insists that Bancroft, who is always on the road, put him in school, so Lydon is taken to Plumfield. When Bancroft finds out about the school's troubles, he tells Francis that he can invest what little money the school has in order to get the $5000 they need; Bancroft is sincere, but the bank he puts the money in fails. When we find out that his escaped con sidekick, Jack Oakie, has a $5000 reward on him, it's not hard to predict the outcome. Until we get to that ending, the rest of the story concerns Lydon and his slow assimilation to the mannered ways of Plumfield. The most interesting scene involves an unusual punishment meted out to Lydon; instead of getting smacked, he has to smack Francis across the hand with a switch, several times. Of course, he can't bear to beat an innocent, and this is the first step in his reformation from snotty troublemaker to upright young man. A few other minor tragedies occur, primarily the forced selling the boys' prize dairy cow Buttercup ("played" by the original Elsie the Cow of Borden fame), and a fierce whooping that Lydon gives one of the boys (Jimmy Zahner) for claiming that Bancroft cheated the school out of money. The only other character who stands out is Silas, the handyman (Johnny Burke) who entertains the boys with his oft-told tales of past glories. In the original novel and film, the professor was German, but here, he's been made Swiss, probably due to our troubles with Germany at the time. The movie, originally released by RKO but made by an independent company called The Play's The Thing, has slipped into the public domain and the print I saw on TCM was murky and scratchy, so it’s difficult to say how it looked to audiences of the time, but it all felt very low-budget to me, despite the presence of Kay Francis (whose star was slipping) and director Norman Z. Macleod (TOPPER, HORSE FEATHERS). Oakie is fairly funny and Lydon (who was the oldest son in LIFE WITH FATHER) is fine as the delinquent turned saint. [TCM]

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Until yesterday, all I knew about the Cisco Kid, courtesy the War hit from 1973, was that he drank whisky and Pancho drank the wine. Now I've seen one of his movies and I know him a little bit better. The character originally appeared in an O. Henry story which was adapted for the movies as IN OLD ARIZONA in 1929 with Warner Baxter playing the Kid, a Mexican Robin Hood figure (and winning the Oscar for best actor that year). Cisco appeared in a couple other films before Fox started this B-Western series with Cesar Romero playing the lead. The film begins with a montage, set to the tune of "La Cucaracha," of reports of a string of robberies attributed to the Cisco Kid; all the "Wanted" posters have different faces on them, letting us know that Romero couldn't possibly have committed them all, but the extent of his real criminal activities remain ambiguous. Romero and his sidekick Gordito (Chris-Pin Martin) come upon a man, traveling with a baby and shot by bandits; with his dying breath, he gives a map of his gold mine to Romero, Martin, and fellow good Samaritan Robert Barratt and asks them to make sure his child is taken care of. They decide to split the map in three parts so no one of them can make a land grab, but it turns out that Barratt is the killer bandit; when his gang arrives to try and get the map parts from Romero and Martin, the two burn up and swallow their pieces after memorizing them, so Barratt has to keep them alive if he has any hope of finding the mine. When the new schoolmarm (Marjorie Weaver) arrives in town, she agrees to take care of the baby, though she has some explaining to do when her beau (George Montgomery) arrives from Kansas City. Of course, thanks to Romero, they wind up together and married, and with the gold mine to boot, and Barratt winds up dead, assumed by bystanders to have been the Cisco Kid. The balance here is heavily weighted toward humor and romance, with an occasional action scene now and then. Virginia Field is the hooker with the heart of gold who has a nice dance scene with Romero. Ward Bond has a small part as a drunk. Romero is very good, though I think I've seen all of the Cisco Kid that I need. [FMC]