Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Much-loved humanitarian doctor George Macready gets a deadly infection during an operation and is on his deathbed. His wife, Jeanne Bates, disparages religion because all her praying to God is doing no good, so she desperately prays to any force, even the devil, to save him. A mysterious woman (Rose Hobart) appears out of nowhere, asking to see the doctor, claiming she was called by his wife. Macready is cured, but he seems to be a changed man: both his wife and his old friend (Erik Rolf) notice he's become cold and mean, his once-faithful dog avoids him, and a corsage that he holds immediately wilts. At a party, a storm terrifies the guests but it seems to energize Macready, who asks the pianist to play the Mephisto Waltz. A disembodied voice draws him away from the party in order to have a dalliance with Hobart. She gives him an ice pick and orders him to kill Rolf. In a scene right out of a Val Lewton film, Macready stalks Rolf down dark city streets until a crucifix lying on the sidewalk stops him in his tracks. Soon Hobart gets him to kill a young colleague and he winds up threatened with death row.

This is an odd little B-film which clearly aspires to the Lewtonesque heights of CAT PEOPLE or SEVENTH VICTIM. Much of it is stylishly shot, and the acting is fine, though the low budget does hurt the look of the movie. Ultimately, the script weakens any overall impact the film might have had. It's startling to hear, in a film of the 40's, a character running down religion in no uncertain terms, and it's even unusual for a non-comic-relief female to be the devil's emissary. But the ridiculous ending pretty much makes mush of everything that goes before. Ultimately, it's a movie might have worked better as a Twilight Zone episode. This Columbia film doesn't crop up often, so it's worth catching if you see it listed, but don't spend a lot of time hunting it down. [TCM]

Monday, February 25, 2008


Yes, it's a movie about insurance, and it's only slightly less boring than you might imagine. The story focuses on Jonathan Blake (Tyrone Power) who, as a youth (played by Freddie Bartholomew), makes his way to London to tell Lloyd's of London, famous insurer of ships, about an insurance fraud plot he overheard. He gets a job with them, working his way up in the company. Around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, he helps a titled lady (Madeleine Carroll) escape from France, falls for her, then discovers she's married to the effete and boorish George Sanders. A few years later, Power has become a cynical fop and a gambler, insuring chorus girls' legs and Queen Victoria against having twins. Some other insurance brokers don't like his methods, but he does raise the profile of the company. He meets up with Carroll again and they begin a clandestine affair. Sanders only wants Carroll for her money, but she decides to get a divorce and invest in Power's brokerage syndicate. Unfortunately, she does so at the moment that France sinks dozens of British ships, throwing Lloyd's into turmoil. They raise their rates astronomically (though Power continues to insure at the lower rates, with Carroll continuing to give him money) and the merchant ships refuse to sail unless large numbers of Navy ships guard them. Power, who was a boyhood pal of Admiral Nelson, has confidence in the British Navy and sends false news of a Nelson victory so that the ships won't be taken away from war. At the climax, Sanders shoots Power over Carroll (or, more precisely, over her money) and at the same moment, Nelson, gravely wounded hundreds of miles away, manages to lead his troops to victory. Power lives, Nelson dies, but the outcome of the romance is left up in the air.

I had a difficult time with both the history, knowing embarrassingly little about British history and the ins and outs of the insurance business. The whole thing seemed wildly improbable anyway, and it turns out that the details of the story are indeed almost entirely fictional, though the set-up of Lloyd's is portrayed more or less accurately. In the beginning, Lloyd's is actually a coffee shop which members of insurance syndicates use as a clearinghouse for dealing and learning the latest news that might affect their business. The way in which foreign news is communicated provides a backdrop for a couple of interesting scenes. This was Power's first starring role, though bizarrely enough, Freddie Bartholomew gets top billing; in fact, Power winds up with fourth billing despite having by far the largest role; once Blake grows to adulthood, Power is in practically every scene. Honestly it was a chore to sit through this movie. Sanders provides some nasty fun in his few moments on screen, and the sets are OK, but it's slow moving and just too long. Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith, and Una O'Connor also appear. [FMC]

Saturday, February 23, 2008


This is not the more famous 1953 John Wayne movie about an Arctic plane crash, but a thoroughly average B-movie crime thriller which is worth watching for the leading lady, the lovely Gloria Stuart. The Island in the Sky is a 70th-floor nightclub where assistant DA Michael Whalen proposes rather informally to his girlfriend Stuart. She insists that he get untangled from his job long enough for a decent honeymoon and he agrees to, but that very night, Whalen is called to investigate the murder of the rich Mr. Vincent. Because a safe has been opened, it appears to be a clear-cut case of a bungled burglary, but a garage owner implicates Vincent's son (Robert Kellard), a young spoiled man who owes a lot of people a lot of money. His girlfriend (June Storey) tries to give him an alibi, but it doesn't wash, and because Kellard won't defend himself in court, he is found guilty and sentenced to death. Stuart agrees to delay her wedding until she and Whalen can clear Kellard. Stuart stumbles onto some evidence that shows that the elder Vincent was involved in a shady scheme with the owner (Leon Ames) of the Island in the Sky nightclub and she tries to hunt down a soon-to-be released convict (Paul Kelly) who could shed some light on the situation, but she's chased off the road and winds up in a coma for a few days, coming out of it on the day of Kellard's scheduled execution. Though Whalen insists she remain in the hospital, she escapes with some help from Whalen's sidekick (Paul Hurst), gets hold of Kelly, and finds out that a long-hidden fact about Kellard's paternity is the reason Kellard won't speak in his defense. The fairly exciting climax (which may have been some inspiration to the creators of IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER) occurs at the nightclub and involves a criminal's confession being aired to a crowd via hidden microphone. Whalen is unattractive and bland, and a real drag on the proceedings. Luckily, the supporting cast is strong. Kellard (the hero of the serial DRUMS OF FU MANCHU) is quite handsome and much more engaging than the nominal leading man, but he spends most of the running time sitting in a jail cell. Kelly is good as the mysterious ex-con who holds the key to the mystery. Ultimately, I stuck with it for Stuart, who is almost always better than the material she wound up in. She's the center of the action here, which helps keep the boring Whalen in a secondary role. [FMC]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Everything I know about English history I know from the movies, so the "facts" in my summary may be totally wrong, but this is how I understood things based on this film. In the mid 16th century, the British royal line is split in two. Queen Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson), a Protestant, rules England; Mary Stuart, a Catholic, rules Scotland even though she lives overseas as the wife of the King of France. When he dies, Mary returns to Scotland where her protestant brother James (Patrick McGoohan) has been running things, not necessarily with her best interests at heart. Elizabeth, considered by the Catholics to be "a bastard and a heretic," is uneasy about Mary's return. Fearing that Mary might marry a Catholic prince and get up a Catholic army to challenge the throne, Elizabeth engages in some long-distance intrigue to influence her match, and Mary winds up with the "degenerate" Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton), who not only whores about and gets syphilis, but also has an occasional taste for men. The Protestant Scottish Lords plot against her, with some help from Darnley, but Mary's pregnancy complicates things, since with Elizabeth unmarried and childless, Mary's child would be sole heir to the throne. Darnley winds up isolated with the "pox" and Mary's lover Bothwell (Nigel Davenport) arranges for his murder, then marries her. Unfortunately, this turns into a scandal and the Scottish lords conspire against Mary, exiling her to England where she is more directly at the mercy of Elizabeth. It is discovered that Mary had tacitly OK'd a murder plot against Elizabeth, giving the Queen all the evidence she needs to imprison Mary and, eventually, to execute her, a chore she is not happy about since it means killing not only a blood relative but a legally-seated queen.

In the 1960's, there was a rash of big-budget historical pictures that were often marketed as "important" movies. They were in widescreen, in spectacular color, with a prestige (usually British) cast. Though they are mostly quite lovely to look at, I find them difficult to sit through because of the episodic nature of their plots, presented like a series of relatively bloodless historical tableaux. This one is a little more energetic than most, and though it does go rushing through the years quickly, it is not difficult to keep up with the narrative. Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for this role and she is indeed very good, as is Glenda Jackson, who is now a largely forgotten presence since she retired from acting in the mid 90's (I've been surprised how many people just a few years younger than me don't know who she is). McGoohan is just as good, though I wish he had more to do. Daniel Massey (Raymond Massey's son) is just as good and just as underused as Elizabeth's horse steward/lover. Trevor Howard is Elizabeth's main advisor, and Ian Holm has a choice role as an advisor of Mary's (and Dalton's occasional lover). In this movie, the two queens meet twice though apparently there is no evidence that they did in real life. No matter, their meetings provide both actresses with good showcase scenes. [Sundance]

Monday, February 18, 2008


Another Marion Davies film from her heyday, this one a variant on the romantic comedy theme made popular by the Warner Bros. "Gold Digger" series a few years later. Davies plays the last remaining original member of a famous chorus girl contingent called the Florodora Girls (a real group of performers who had at least one hot record in their day). The others all left to get married to rich men, but Davies, a knockout, just can't find a serious suitor. She dates a nebbish (George Chandler) who works at a cigar store but who clearly isn't husband material. Her friends advise her to play hard-to-get games to get noticed, so she catches the eye of young playboy Lawrence Grey by pretending to be drowning at a beach. It works and they begin dating, but matters are complicated by: 1) Davies' alcoholic father; 2) Chandler's employer (Sam Hardy), a high-profile but sleazy gambler who takes a shine to Davies; 3) Grey asking Davies to be "kept" by him in her own apartment; 4) Grey's own gambling habit which eventually ruins his family. The light story takes an Edith Wharton-ish turn when Grey's mother asks Davies to give Grey up so he'll be free to marry into a rich family; she agrees to, but in a rather abrupt ending, everything turns out OK for the pair a few months later when Grey invests in the new-fangled "horseless carriage." As in PEG O' MY HEART, Davies is alright but nothing special, though she's good looking and vivacious enough that I had a hard time buying the premise that her character didn't always have a stream of eligible men at her stage door. Claud Allister does his usual flaming silly prat role and Walter Catlett has a running gag in which he follows Davies around at a party to attend to her malfunctioning dress zipper. There are several songs throughout, all performed on stage, and one odd number featuring a male chorus singing about dreaming about a man. [TCM]

Thursday, February 14, 2008

PEG O' MY HEART (1933)

I've never quite gotten the appeal of Marion Davies. I know she's not the talentless spectacle that Susan Alexander Kane (the character based on her in CITIZEN KANE) is, but at the same time, I find her to be pretty much without charisma. On the basis of the three or four films of hers I've seen I doubt she would have been a leading lady for long without the financial backing of William Randolph Hearst. This film does little to change my mind about her. In an Irish fishing village, the young Peg (Davies) lives with her good-natured father (J. Farrell MacDonald). An upper class lawyer (Onslow Stevens) arrives one day with the news that Davies has been left an estate of 2 million pounds from her dead mother's family, but there are two conditions: she must spend three years getting a proper social education by living with a stuffy family in London, and she must agree to cut all ties to her father. MacDonald sends her off, not telling her about the second condition. The family, led by icy matriarch Irene Browne, is upper-class but has fallen on hard times and is hosting Davies for money. The somewhat reserved Stevens slowly thaws and becomes a supportive figure to the girl who is looked down upon by most of the family members. Browne disapproves of Davies' grammar and her scruffy dog. The friendly but rather fey son (Tyrell Davis) proposes to her, but is ecstatic when she refuses him. Davies discovers that Browne's daughter, who is supposed to be engaged to Stevens, is having a clandestine affair and Davies develops a crush on Stevens; the climax of the film involves this situation. The film is predictable but amusing. Davies, who was in her mid-30's, was too old to pass for a virginal kid in pigtails in the early scenes, but is OK in the last half. Stevens goes in the opposite direction: he's fine early on, but when he's called upon to become a sympathetic romantic lead, he stumbles; I imagine he's better at second leads. [TCM]

Saturday, February 09, 2008


A Depression-era romance notable for its interesting variation on the "true love wins" narrative arc. The focus is on a working-class big-city family: dad Spencer Charters is unemployed and, though he insists to his wife (Jane Darwell) that he's looking for a job, he's really out betting on horses with spare dollar bills he scrounges up. Older daughter Ann Sothern has a job which just barely supports ma and pa and her younger sister (Joan Gale) and brother (14-year-old Mickey Rooney). She dates Paul Kelly, a hard working mechanic who has just started his own garage; he's a nice guy and her family likes him, but when he stands her up on her birthday to help a stranded motorist, she goes on a blind date and hits it off with Neil Hamilton, the rich son of a department store magnate. They hit it off, he gets her a job modeling at the store, and she drops Kelly, though he continues to visit the family. Things go well for Sothern until Hamilton asks her to go on a long trip to Europe with him, but without the benefit of clergy, so she dumps him, and then gets fired from her job, not by Hamilton but by his father who thinks Sothern is bad news for his son. Now the sexual politics get interesting. With the family in dire straits, Kelly gives Sothern's dad a job just to keep them from getting evicted. Darwell then tells Sothern she should "repay" Kelly by marrying him, even though she no longer loves him. Kelly proposes and she half-heartedly accepts; there follows a string of odd incidents, including Kelly getting his leg crushed in a garage accident (which is the fault of her father) and Sothern, desperate for money, entering a dance marathon (a la "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"). Ultimately, both Hamilton and Kelly perform selfless acts for Sothern, and she rather surprisingly winds up going off with Hamilton. I never really bought Sothern as truly in love with Hamilton (a problem with her acting, perhaps) so I was surprised when she turned down good hearted working-class self-sacrifice for good hearted playboy affection. The ending goes against the Hollywood grain which is what makes this film stand out just a bit from the run of the mill melodrama of the era. Leonard Maltin's guide calls this a romantic comedy, and while it does have a light tone and an ostensibly happy ending, it's not ha-ha funny very often. [TCM]

Thursday, February 07, 2008


A wild, exotic British musical, based on the tale of Ali Baba from the Arabian Nights. If you've been looking for a musical in which some of the production numbers include murder or mass slaughter, look no further. The film begins with a musical number detailing the preparations for a feast being given by the wealthy Kasim Baba for merchants visiting Baghdad, one of whom will be the fabled Chu Chin Chow. Slave girl Anna May Wong sends a pigeon to deliver a message to the master thief Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner), who heads out to the desert to kill Chow, take his riches, and pose as him at the feast. We meet Kasim’s lazy older brother Ali (George Robey) and his handsome son Nur-al-din (John Garrick) who is sweet on another slave girl (Pearl Argyle). Ali happens to see Hasan and his forty thieves get in and out of their hiding place in the desert mountains by uttering "Open, O Sesame" and after they leave, he sneaks in, steals a large load of jewels, and returns to town a rich man. Kasim also discovers the "Sesame" secret and tries to steal some riches, but is found by the thieves and killed as the climax to a rousing song about drawing scimitars. In fact, he is cut up into several pieces (though we never see this) and his family hires a cobbler to stitch his body back together for his funeral. When Hasan finds out that Ali Baba has some of his riches, he and his gang sneak into a party being given for the visiting Caliph by hiding in olive oil barrels, and anyone who knows the original story knows how it ends. A spectacular battle scene involving a violent death and a man and a huge gong both falling down a flight of stairs is praised by the Caliph as grand "entertainment."

The movie itself is pretty good entertainment, though it surely won't be everyone's cup of tea. This is a unique film; though it sometimes has the feel of a Hope & Crosby “Road to Baghdad” movie, it isn’t exactly played for laughs. In fact, it feels a bit like a collaboration between Cecil B. DeMille and Busby Berkeley, though since it was done in England, it doesn’t have the big Hollywood sheen that those two would have given it. Nonetheless, the sets and costumes are convincing, and some of the numbers (especially one which threatens to turn into a water ballet) are well staged, even if the songs are not particularly memorable. There are loads of extras in the backgrounds of most scenes and loads of singers and dancers in every number which give the movie a convincingly busy and bustling atmosphere. The acting is hit-and-miss; Kortner (ABDUL THE DAMNED) makes a good bad guy and Garrick is an OK good guy; Robey, a music hall comedian, is miscast but not terribly so; Argyle, though attractive, is not much of an actor. Wong, whose reputation has undergone an upswing in recent years, hasn't much to do and is rather low-key in doing it. The movie is based on a very popular British stage extravaganza, and part of my interest in seeing this in the first place has to do with it being mentioned in AUNTIE MAME as a show that Mame and Vera toured in during their salad days. The disc from VCI is "restored," but don't expect anything more than an adequate print--there are some scratches and some murkiness in both the picture and the sound. I gave the commentary 15 minutes and it bored me to tears. Still, a nifty little buried gem that is certainly different from anything else from the era. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

MAN HUNT (1941)

In July, 1939, just before the outbreak of WWII in Europe, big-game hunter Walter Pidgeon, tramping through the woods, comes upon Hitler standing alone at his forest retreat. Pidgeon takes careful aim and fires, but with his gun unloaded, we realize he's doing it for sport. When he sees how easy it is, he seems to have a change of heart and reaches for his ammo, but is jumped by a Gestapo guard. Pidgeon tells Nazi official George Sanders that he was just doing a "sporting stalk," not intending to kill, but Sanders wants him to sign a "confession" that he was part of a British government plot to assassinate Hitler. Pidgeon refuses, so he is tortured and left for dead, but he is made of tough stuff and escapes, winding up half-conscious on a Danish ship headed for England, where he gets some assistance from young Roddy McDowell. Once he's back home, the Germans want him extradited for trial and the British are caught in a tight place, as they do not want this incident to ramp up tensions between the two countries, so Pidgeon has to evade both sides, with some help from "good time girl" Joan Bennett. We soon discover he's being stalked by creepy Nazi spy John Carradine and there follows a tense cat and mouse sequence in the London Underground. Eventually Sanders himself gets involved and the climax plays out in another cat and mouse scene in a cave. Fritz Lang directed this early WWII film which avoids overt propaganda and is a solid adventure/thriller with nice use of exterior "locations" (stagy but still effective). Pidgeon is a rather wooden actor, but here he comes off as stoic, which works OK. Sanders outshines him (and speaks pretty good German in one scene) and Bennett holds her own even with a Cockney accent. I like the ambiguity of the opening scene; despite what he says to the Gestapo, I'm still not sure if he would have killed Hitler or whether he really was playing a dangerous game. [FMC]

Sunday, February 03, 2008


I usually have affection and tolerance for Poverty Row movies like this crime "thriller" from Monogram, but even I could barely stick with this one for its entire 63 minutes. When I was trying to explain this "genre" of film to my partner Don, who got stuck watching this dog with me, he asked, "So Poverty Row means racist and unfunny?" In this case, yes. The plot has some promise: the title character (Bela Lugosi), who runs a spice shop in San Francisco's Chinatown, has resorted to murder to collect 11 of the 12 fabled coins of Confucius, which will supposedly give the owner great power. The police, stymied by the string of killings, tell the press that there's a Tong war going on, but cocky reporter Wallace Ford thinks differently. He takes a note in Chinese that he found at the last murder scene to a professor of Orientology (yes, that's exactly what it says on his door) to get it translated, but the professor winds up dead--as a cop says, "He sure is speaking a dead language now!" (That line is the high point of the movie.) It turns out that the last victim managed to hide the twelfth coin before he died, and the rest of the movie is a race, albeit rather sluggishly paced, between Ford (and his wisecracking girl Arline Judge) and Lugosi to get the coin. The film has the usual flaws of ultra-low budget films of the era--cheap, overlit sets; hack writing; no background music; too much talk and not enough action--but it has none of the potential charms of such films, such as atmosphere or camp appeal. Don also noted that the film seemed like a serial without cliffhangers, and there is something to his comment; the first 11 murders all mostly occur off-screen in the first five minutes, but this might have all worked better as a serial in which Wong gets one coin per chapter. Surprisingly, the Hungarian Lugosi, whose accent winds up kind of mumbly-foreign, is not terrible as the Chinese Wong, who is a very poor man's Fu Manchu. Ford, who I usually like, sleepwalks through the feisty reporter role, and Judge is only marginally better. There are lots and lots of nasty anti-Chinese cracks made by Ford and the police, chiefly by Robert Emmett O'Connor as a stereotypical Irish cop, and only one scene (involving two giggly girls) in which the Chinese get back at the Anglos. The Roan Group "archival" disc is in junky shape, on a par with the Alpha bargain-basement discs--not that I think this film really deserves to have a lot of restoration effort put into it. Recommended only for die-hard Lugosi fans. [DVD]