Friday, May 30, 2008

A word on Sydney Pollack:

Director Sydney Pollack, who died last week, didn't start making movies until the mid-60's, so he's not exactly a classic-era filmmaker, but he always seemed to have more in common with the studio wizards of the 30's and 40's than with his contemporaries like Altman, Kubrick, or Coppola. Like Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce), Pollack didn't have a distinctive personal style or stamp, but he made well-crafted, entertaining films. In my book, his strongest films are Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor, The Firm, and the remake of Sabrina--not as good as the original but a solidly-made comedy. I'm not as crazy about Out of Africa or The Way We Were, which both could have used doses of interesting style in the storytelling or the visuals.

But I'll miss Pollack more as an actor. He was good at playing friendly but authoritative father figures. I guess I'm mostly thinking of his recurring role as Will's father in Will & Grace, but I also liked him in Tootsie, Husbands and Wives, and in last year's Michael Clayton (in which he was not friendly, but sinister). He only acted in a handful of movies, but he was making acting a bigger part of his career as time went by and I'm sorry for all the grandfatherly (good or sinister) roles he won't get to do.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I'm not a fan of Susan Hayward's overwrought performances in the string of 50's women's melodramas that made her a star, but this one, her first starring vehicle, is a little less bombastic than the others and is fairly enjoyable, especially when you're watching for the real-life context. Hayward plays a nightclub singer named Angelica Evans who was supposedly modeled after singer and actress Dixie Lee; in the beginning, her career is on the rise, but she lets it take a backseat to her life as wife to crooner Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), based on Bing Crosby, who has just gotten a job as a singing cowboy on the radio. He adopts a twangy style of singing and, scheduled at 6 in the morning, isn't having much success until Hayward gives birth; because he's on the air while she's having her baby, he sings a song he wrote for her, in his normal singing voice, and he's a smash hit. His show is moved to 6 in the evening, he develops a fan base, and he begins touring. The emotionally insecure Hayward, who always needed a drink before she went on stage, starts drinking again to face the crowds of fans and business people who are suddenly part of their lives. As Bowman's career becomes more and more of a priority, her drinking becomes more obvious; a doctor (Carl Esmond) advises Bowman to give her more attention, but when Hayward suspects that Bowman and his assistant (Marsha Hunt) are having an affair, things spiral downward quickly. After she physically attacks Hunt at a party, Bowman initiates a divorce and seeks custody of their daughter. Hayward tries to restart her singing career, but she gets drunk opening night and misses the show. She kidnaps her little girl, leading to a climactic scene involving a fire, but also to a too-abrupt redemption for all, including Bowman who suddenly decides it’s time to make time for Hayward.

I like Hayward here, a whirlwind but not as over-the-top as she could get later in films like I WANT TO LIVE!; she was nominated for an Oscar for this film. Bowman, usually a supporting player, does a fine job as the Crosby stand-in; it also helps that the man who dubs his songs (Hal Derwin) has a bit of the Crosby lilt in his voice. Eddie Albert is likeable as a songwriter buddy of Bowman's. I especially liked Hunt as the potential "other woman" and the way her relationship with Bowman remains ambiguous until the end. Dorothy Parker co-wrote the original story. In real life, Crosby was quite a drinker early in his career, and as he gained fame (and control over his drinking), his wife slipped into alcoholism which led to her early death a few years after this film was released. This is shot in a murky noir style which fits its mood. The song Bowman sings for Hayward, "Life Can Be Beautiful," is quite nice, if overused by the end. [TCM]

Monday, May 26, 2008


This average WWII propaganda programmer is notable primarily for its stunning Technicolor, rare for a relatively short film that was probably intended as a second feature, though its production values are generally high. The film is set at a real place, Thunderbird Field in Arizona, where, according to John Gunther’s opening narration, the Army was using civilians to train British and Chinese pilots for their respective air forces, probably before the U.S. was officially in the war--Gunther mentions American pilots, but the story doesn’t feature any, so I assume it was filmed and/or written before Pearl Harbor. Preston Foster (the hero of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) is a veteran pilot who offers his services at Thunderbird. One of his most promising British students is John Sutton, the son of a pilot Foster knew and admired in WWI, but he suffers from an extreme form of vertigo which causes him to get sick every time he goes up in a plane. The commander, Jack Holt, wants to wash Sutton out and replace him with a likelier candidate, but Sutton assures Foster that he can overcome his problem and Foster goes to bat for him. Their relationship is strained when Sutton falls for lovely Gene Tierney, granddaughter of local rancher George Barbier, before he realizes that Foster has carried a torch for her for quite a while--though Tierney seems to think of Foster as more like an uncle (and frankly, that's what he seems like).

That’s pretty much it for the narrative; if you’ve seen any of these wartime buddy pictures, you’ll know from the start that Sutton will eventually, thanks to the noble Foster, overcome his weakness and make a sterling pilot, saving Foster’s life and bagging Tierney in the process. Sutton wisely underplays his part, though it takes a while to warm up to him; Tierney's acting talents aren't strained, though she is beautiful; Dame May Whitty has a small role as Sutton's grandmother in a flashback scene; a very young Richard Haydn (best known as Max in THE SOUND OF MUSIC) has a comic relief role as another British pilot; Reginald Denny is the head of British forces at the field. The use of Technicolor makes this beautiful to watch; particularly striking are the desert vistas and the bright blue and yellow planes the students fly. The film is clearly what some critics call a "preparedness" film (getting the public ready for our participation in the war and boosting a particular branch of the military), as there are no war scenes and very little talk of war, but with that in mind, it's entertaining enough. [DVD]

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Thanks to crime writer James Ellroy's perverse obsession with 1958, the year in which his mother was murdered, I was able to see this odd little juvenile delinquent/noir which would probably otherwise have never seen the light of day on Turner Classic Movies. Ellroy was a guest programmer one night and picked all fairly obscure crime movies from '58. This one was the most obscure so it's the one I watched. Two cops bust in on a drug deal but are shot at by two other crooks who were keeping watch. A briefcase which contains a can filled with heroin winds up in the tall weeds to be found by grocery delivery boy Jonathan Haze. He and his buddies, aspiring artist Yale Wexler and bodybuilding jock Steven Marlo, don't know what they have at first, but when they do, they decide to sell it to raise some money, with some help from drooling junkie Allen Kramer, but soon both the cops and the crooks are searching for the heroin. There's a long scene of Kramer describing the horrors of withdrawal before the poor guy gets worked over by the bad guys. Marlo also gets a fierce ass-whooping in a well-shot scene before the cops corner the baddies, save the day, and teach the boys a lesson. The movie has a very low-rent feel, but it has a nice jazzy score by Richard Markowitz who later wrote the score for the Murder She Wrote series; the director, Irvin Kershner, is best known for helming THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The cinematography is by the famous Haskell Wexler (under the pseudonym Mark Jeffrey) and lead actor Yale Wexler is his brother. Though the buddies are all dating girls, there is an odd homoerotic tension in an early scene in which the artist is sketching the bodybuilder during his sweaty workout. Haze is best remembered as Seymour in the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. [TCM]

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Poor Barbara Stanwyck! Her father, working on a blasting crew, is killed in an accident; left all alone, she finds work at a campus diner run by her aunt (Zasu Pitts), but has to put up with blowhard frat guys hitting on her. Studious student and rich boy Regis Toomey thinks she's a bit on the trampy side, but they hit it off. However, Stanwyck proves too rough for Toomey's nasty meddling mother (Clara Blandick) who schemes to get her son away from her by faking a heart condition and insisting that Toomey accompany her to Europe for her treatment. Toomey, to his credit, insists on taking Stanwyck with him and he plans their wedding, but Blandick, with some help from her friend, a judge (Oscar Apfel), tries to pay Stanwyck to go away. When that doesn't work, they get her committed to the State Home for the Regeneration of Females on trumped-up morals charges. In a 20-second montage sequence which covers six years, we see Stanwyck leave the Home, become a chorus girl, then an actress, and finally a star of the stage (with Pitts as her maid). When Toomey and Stanwyck meet again, she thinks that he OK'd her heist to the reform school, and he thinks that she took money to leave him. The rest of the film follows their eventual reconciliation, despite Blandick's continued meddling (even the judge counsels Blandick to get psychiatric help). The plot contrivances get more outrageous until the last scene in which Blandick actually pulls a pistol on Stanwyck. Sadly, the happy ending is rushed and awkward, but until then, this is a fun over-the-top mother-love melodrama.

The title is misleading, as Stanwyck isn't really "shopworn"; in the last half, we see that she has made headlines as the third party in divorce case, and the townsfolk refer to her as "notorious," but we never know how much of this reputation is deserved. Toomey is a bit too bland, but Stanwyck is fine. Even better is Clara Blandick, mostly known as Aunt Em in OZ. She gives a full-blooded performance as a bitch you love to hate. Stanwyck gets a couple of good pre-Code lines: She tells Toomey about her rough-and-tumble upbringing in construction camps, "I could cuss when I was 6 and say no when I was 14." In a discussion about discussing sex, she says, "In this country, we call sex anything but." And this film must mark the first use of the word "ejaculate" in a Hollywood movie--even though it's in the context of a dictionary-browsing session, it's still rather startling. [TCM]

Monday, May 19, 2008

LORD JIM (1965)

It's been a few years since I read Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim"; I liked it a great deal, but I remember it as a relatively dense novel of ideas buried in an obliquely told narrative, with a central character who remains a cipher. Custom made for Hollywood, eh? Peter O'Toole is Jim, an officer in the Merchant Marine on board the S. S. Patna. The narrator Marlow (Jack Hawkins) tells us that O'Toole had big dreams of glory, of being someone important, but all that is scuttled when the ship, carrying 800 Muslims to Mecca, is overcome by a storm at sea. O'Toole lets his fear get the best of him and imagines he sees the hold flooding. He and some of the other men abandon the ship in a lifeboat, leaving the pilgrims to a watery fate, but it turns out that the ship was only damaged, and it and its passengers survived. An inquiry is held and O'Toole confesses to desertion. Instead of a life of fame, he hides in anonymity and takes any job he can get. When he saves a small boat's cargo from fire, its owner (Paul Lukas) hires him to go upriver in the Malay jungle, with weapons and supplies, to help the natives of Patusan free themselves from a vicious warlord (Eli Wallach). The natives accept O'Toole as a leader and after a prolonged battle, Wallach is defeated, but a group of his cronies, led by Curt Jurgens, escape. With the help of the notorious Gentleman Brown (James Mason), they return to get hold of some precious jewels and O'Toole leads the villagers' defense. After the defeat of the crooks, O'Toole lets himself be talked into allowing them to leave unharmed, but Mason has a trick up his sleeve, leading to a final deadly and tragic conflict, with O'Toole sealing his own fate.

Made in the model of the David Lean period epics of the day (by Richard Brooks who also directed In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar), the movie does a nice job of condensing the action of the story as well as conflating characters, but it can't make up for the fact that the central character remains an enigma (as he does in the book). O'Toole was probably not the right actor for the part—I saw someone with a bit more physical bulk—but he's OK, though it often seems like he's still playing T.E. Lawrence, in the jungle rather than the desert. Wallach never seems as menacing as he should. The exotic Dahlia Lavi is wasted in a useless role as O'Toole's native love interest, and the usually reliable Mason is ill-used here. I did like Jurgens and Akim Tamiroff as villains, and Lukas, in his last major film role, is excellent. Most of the film looks very good, especially the scene toward the end of O'Toole and Mason meeting in the middle of a foggy river near dawn. I also like the sound of the wind chimes as O'Toole faces his fate at the very end. The story deals with the themes of fate, guilt, heroism, redemption, and responsibility, maybe a few too many things for what was marketed as an adventure film. It's also too long, with the first battle and its preparations in particular going on at tedious length. Not a bad movie, but if you have to choose between the movie and the book, read the book. [DVD]

Sunday, May 18, 2008

How I Operate:

Someone recently asked me if I could post the movies I'm going to review in advance so readers of this blog could catch them. Unfortunately, that's not terribly feasible given the way I operate here. Each day or two I scan the TCM schedule via my cable provider's on-screen program guide and I set the DVR to record the movies I want to see. I then watch them at my leisure, and sometimes they stay on the DVR for months before I get around to them. I eventually watch them, taking notes along the way, then write up my review as a Word document and store it on my computer or hard drive for retrieval when I post the review here, which might be months later. However, I sometimes wait quite a while before I write my review--hence the note-taking so I don't forget key details--so ultimately, I may not post a review of a movie for six months to a year after it actually aired on Turner Classic or Fox Movie Channel. I currently have over 100 reviews backed up on my computer, and probably about 40 movie notes stuck away in a folder which I haven't turned into reviews yet.

But what I can do is scan the TCM schedule a week or two ahead of time and post here periodically a list of movies that 1) I'm planning on catching for review, and 2) movies I've reviewed in the past or have enjoyed without reviewing which are coming up. Below is my first such list (all air times Eastern):

* On TCM's Jimmy Stewart day, Tuesday, 5/20, three of my favorite Stewart films are airing: SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (9:45 a.m.), PHILADELPHIA STORY (11:30 a.m.), and VERTIGO (5:45 p.m.)

* I may try to catch MISS SADIE THOMPSON (5/22, 7:15 a.m.), Rita Hayworth's take on the famous prostitute from Somerset Maugham's "Rain," though I'm sure the movie won't be better than the Joan Crawford early 30's version.

* The lovely young John Payne is on display in the amusing boxing movie KID NIGHTINGALE (5/23, 9:15 a.m) which also has the always reliable Jane Wyman in her early B-movie days when she was fun.

* BREAKER MORANT, an excellent Australian military courtroom drama from 1980 is on Saturday night, 5/24, at 11:15 p.m.

* TCM's Memorial Day war movie schedule (5/26) has THE LOST PATROL (8:30 a.m.) which served as a template for many later war films in which a small group of soldiers is being picked off one by one in an isolated location. It's a good one. Also SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (2:00 p.m.), a solid WWII homefront film, better than MRS. MINIVER.

* On 5/27 at 6:00 a.m., I'll be recording ATLANTIC ADVENTURE, a mid-30's B-movie I know nothing about except it has Lloyd Nolan, who was always good in those kinds of films.

Friday, May 16, 2008


This adventure film breaks down neatly into two halves. Part 1: Navy commander Jack Holt, anxious to drum up support for the Navy's dirigible (airship) fleet, talks Hobart Bosworth, leader of an expedition to the South Pole, into using a dirigible to get there instead of planes. Holt asks his buddy, ace pilot Ralph Graves, to fly along in his plane, but Graves' wife (Fay Wray), whom Holt has feelings for, asks Holt not to take Graves away from home again, so without telling him why, Holt dismisses Graves from his team. On its way south, the airship runs into a huge storm and breaks apart over the ocean. Graves leads the rescue team, then takes a leave of absence from the Navy to become a full partner in Bosworth's expedition. Part 2: The unhappy Wray writes Graves a letter to be opened when he gets to the Pole, telling him she's getting a divorce (she's "tired of being married to a headline") and will be begging Holt to marry her. The group sets up a base camp on Antarctica, but when Graves flies a handful of men to the Pole, they crash and the plane burns up. A harrowing sequence follows, showing the men planting a flag, then trying to make the long trek back to base camp in harsh conditions, with the gravely injured Bosworth strapped to a sled. Holt and his crew take an airship to the Pole to attempt a rescue, but not everyone survives.

Last year, Turner Classic Movies showcased films involving aviation and this little-seen early effort by Frank Capra was included. It feels like one of the military preparedness films of the late 30's, though in this case, it's not about getting ready for war, but for selling the public on the Navy's use of dirigibles--by WWII, only a few such airships were being used by the U.S and the fleet was soon phased out altogether. Actually, the film, with its "man vs. natural phenomena" setpieces, feels more related to the German Mountain films, especially SOS ICEBERG. The relationship subplot is tedious and predictable, but the two big disaster scenes are well done and involving, especially the airship crack-up at sea. Capra's usual themes, such as the championing of the little guy, and his sentimental streak are not in evidence here, but there is an interesting modern feeling to the direction, with some use of casual overlapping dialogue. Neither Holt nor Graves would have been my first choice for their roles--maybe the young Spencer Tracy and Douglas Fairbanks--but they're OK, better than Wray who doesn't have much to work with. I don't know where the location footage was done, but I didn't have to suspend much disbelief to imagine they were near Antarctica. Roscoe Karns does a nice job as one of the potentially doomed members of the Pole expedition. Worth seeing, especially for a different take on Capra. [TCM]

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I recently read the first volume of Gary Giddins' masterful biography of Bing Crosby, "A Pocketful of Dreams," which covers the man and his career up to 1940, and I've been anxious to see more of Crosby's early, that is, pre-"Road," films. A recent 5-film DVD set from Universal includes this little gem, a big moneymaker for Paramount (as most of his movies were). It's as fluffy and insubstantial as cotton candy but it has a certain charm, and has the added plus of imaginative production numbers. The film, set entirely on the Hawaiian Islands, begins with a nicely shot native wedding scene with Crosby as best man, serenading the couple in a surprisingly deep voice. He plays a PR man for a pineapple company who has to deal with a promotion gone bad: a contest winner (Shirley Ross) who is supposed to be writing a series of newspaper articles about her wonderful paradise vacation is having a miserable time and wants to leave. The head of the company (George Barbier) wants Crosby to make sure that she changes her mind. He gets off on the wrong foot when he accidentally dunks her in the water. The next day, as she's about to leave the islands, a man asks her to wear a necklace for him so he can smuggle it past customs. She agrees, but is waylaid by a group of Hawaiian men who tell her that the necklace has a stolen pearl in it that she must return to its proper place to placate the volcano gods. Crosby accompanies her on her adventure, along with his sidekick Bob Burns and her pal Martha Raye. About halfway through the movie, we learn that the entire escapade, even the threatening volcano, has been arranged by Crosby to give Ross the time of her life, but along the way, she starts to fall for him, and he for her. Just as her cocky fiance (Leif Erickson) flies out to see her, she learns that not only did Crosby fake her adventure, but he's also been publishing newspaper articles about her trip under her name. Which of the suitors will she wind up with? Um, duh, but as in most romantic comedies like this, it's not the conclusion but the getting there that's the point.

Crosby is his usual mellow, charming self, and sings two great songs, the Oscar-winning lullaby "Sweet Leilani" and the lovely "Blue Hawaii," which is sung once as a duet with Ross in which Crosby is supposed to be teaching her the song, a scene that may have influenced his performance of "White Christmas" with Marjorie Reynolds in HOLIDAY INN. There's also a very fun dance number, "Hula Heaven" which involves some sexy dancing on top of giant drums, and a man doing a wild knife dance. Ross, who sang "Thanks for the Memory" with Bob Hope in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, is OK but doesn’t exactly burn up the screen. Raye's over-the-top mugging gets a bit obnoxious, and I could have done with a bit less of Burns and the pig he carries everywhere. Even though we are clearly meant to find Erickson immensely unlikable, he is sort of hot. Also in the supporting cast is Grady Sutton as Barbier's piggy son, Granville Bates as Erickson's uncle, and Anthony Quinn in one of his earliest credited roles as one of the native men who helps Crosby out with his charade. Though most of it was obviously shot in the studio, the tropical sets are nice and it looks like there is some location footage in the background on occasion. Quite fun; as I noted earlier, fluffy but charming. [DVD]

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A mild but effective modern-day ghost story which plays out like a British version of THE UNINVITED. James Mason and Barbara Mullen, an elderly couple, buy a house which has been empty for 40 years since the previous tenant, a sickly girl named Elizabeth, died of an overdose, having been spurned by a local doctor. The house may be haunted--they hear a strange voice on a speaking tube "intercom"--but they vow to stay on with their young hired companion (Margaret Lockwood). There are snatches of ghostly conversations, breezes of unknown origin, and a spooky storm, and Lockwood, who can't play the piano, can suddenly play it like an expert. When Lockwood collapses and takes to her sickbed, Mason and Mullen believe she's been possessed by the dead girl and their only hope is to find the doctor from Elizabeth's past. Mason, even with old-age makeup, seems too young for the part, but Mullen is nicely sly. Dennis Price plays a young doctor who helps out, and Ernest Thesiger has a small but crucial role in the climax. Though not a comedy, there is a light tone throughout, as in THE UNINVITED; things lag a bit in the middle, but for an old-fashioned ghost story, this is solid entertainment. [TCM]

Monday, May 12, 2008


Don Murray is a young married bookkeeper who is taking night classes in hopes of advancement, but his wife's announcement that she's pregnant throws him for a loop. With his wife already complaining about the number of nights she has to spend alone, he thinks about quitting school and vents his general frustration with his buddies at an informal bachelor party one night. During the course of the evening, the guys go to dinner, watch some stag films (which put them to sleep), go out for drinks, and wind up at a wild Greenwich Village party. Along the way, lots of other problems bubble to the surface. The groom-to-be (Philip Abbott) is a 30-something virgin who still lives with his mother and is having second thoughts about his "arranged" marriage to a distant cousin whom he likes but for whom he feels no passion; Jack Warden, a bachelor, keeps pushing the guys to keep the party going until the wee hours, and secures the services of a hooker for Abbott; Larry Blyden, closest to Murray in age and circumstances, isn't able to give Murray much advice about his situation, and confesses to an extramarital fling a few years ago. When Murray asks if he loves his wife, Blyden replies with a string of the obligations he's gotten into in the name of family and ends with, "I'd better love her!"; E.G. Marshall, the oldest of the group and typically an easygoing fellow, gets drunk and admits that his doctor has told him he's a very sick man and needs to move to Arizona, but he can't face leaving the big city and starting a career from scratch. Murray himself is tempted to stray with a beatnick nympho (Carolyn Jones), and when he does head home, he and his wife argue over their options: Should he quit school? Should she get an abortion (which was illegal back then)? As in most 50's Hollywood films, the complex issues brought up are all banished far too easily in the final moments by the mouthing of banal platitudes about love.

Having said that, I should note that I am all for love and fidelity, but this film's happy ending (at least for Murray) feels fake and unearned. Up until that point, I liked this look at 50's middle-class male angst a lot, mostly for the acting. Warden and Marshall are fine as one would expect, and Blyden is good enough to make me sorry he didn't do more film acting--he wound up mostly in TV, known best today for game show appearances. Jones was nominated for an Oscar even though she's only on screen for about five minutes; nevertheless, she makes a strong impression, and the climax of the narrative occurs when she gets Murray in a clinch and says desperately, "Just say you love me--you don't have to mean it!" Patricia Smith is OK in the thankless role of the passive-aggressive wife who brings up the issue of abortion only because she's sure that Murray would be against it, and she's shocked when he's not. Nancy Marchand (Tony's mom on The Sopranos) is very good in a small role as Smith's sister-in-law who confesses her own unhappiness with her philandering husband. Best of all is Murray, who is not only excellent in the lead role (and is in almost every scene) but handsome and sexy as hell, in that 50's button-down way. He inhabits his role so well, I was disappointed that we didn't get to see him work out his frustrations in an explosive tryst with Jones. He has a leading man face--and here, often looks like an intense, depressed puppy dog--but a sidekick voice and persona; after a strong start in his first few films, he never quite made it to star status, but he has continued acting right up to the present day. He's probably best known now for a continuing role in Knot's Landing in the early 80's, though I remember him as the Congressman with a hidden gay past in ADVISE AND CONSENT. I'll have to keep my eye out for more Murray. [TCM]

Sunday, May 11, 2008


An odd duck of a movie, especially for 1940--essentially, it's half a black comedy involving a woman accused of murder, and half a romantic comedy with much of the romance erased and replaced by familial love. Brian Aherne and his wife, Irene Rich, run a bicycle/music shop (yeah, that seemed like a strange combo to me, too) in Paris, and live in the building with their son (Glenn Ford) and daughter (Evelyn Keyes). Aherne, excited to be called to jury duty, sits on the case of a lovely young woman (Rita Hayworth) accused of murdering her benefactor. First, he's convinced she's guilty, but soon he comes around to thinking that she couldn't be, and by asking a question about the timing of events on the night of the murder, he raises just enough doubt among the jurors that she's acquitted. After the trial, Aherne discovers that Hayworth is homeless and he offers her a job and a place to stay. He doesn't tell his family who Hayworth is, and, though at first his wife suspects he has a romantic interest in the girl, Hayworth is soon accepted by the family. Ford, an astronomy buff who has a telescope and huge models of the planets in his work room, knows who she is but becomes smitten with her anyway until he overhears one of Aherne's fellow jurors (Curt Bois) visiting and raising doubts about Hayworth's innocence. There are two running subplots; the major one involves Keyes' finace (Robert Norris), a dance teacher--always a suspect occupation in the classic movie era--who begins a flirtation on the side with Hayworth. The lesser comic-relief plot involves a pudgy man who keeps trading single bikes for tandem ones when he gets engaged, then returns for the single bike when his girl dumps him. All the plot strands come together on a near-tragic Christmas Eve which turns into a happy Christmas Day for most everyone.

Aherne, not quite 40 at the time, is made up fairly well to look older and does a nice job in a part that could have stood a bit more development; in the original French film GRIBOUILLE, there is apparently more ambiguity in the feelings the father has for the girl (father figure vs. lover), though in this version, that possibility is left pretty far in the background, and Aherne's paternalistic relationship with Hayworth is stressed much more than Ford's romantic one. Hayworth is fine, though her character is even less well defined. Ford is very young and boyish and is maybe the best actor in the bunch, though he's not around for a big chunk of the middle of the film. Keyes has a couple of scenes in which she sounds just like the whining Suellen she played in GONE WITH THE WIND. George Coulouris is Hayworth's lawyer and Frank Reicher (who looks a bit like Harry Davenport) is a judge. Even though the story wasn't based on a play, it sometimes feels stagy (not necessarily a bad thing), and I loved the set of the large multilevel house with its many windows from one room into another. [TCM]

Friday, May 09, 2008

DETOUR (1945)

Tom Neal is an unshaven hitchhiker at a roadside diner who freaks out when a song from his past plays on the jukebox. In a flashback, we see that Neal was once a promising pianist in New York City (at a club called the Break O' Dawn), but when his girlfriend, a singer at the club, leaves to make a name out in California, he becomes dejected, sadly plunking out rather avant-garde pastiches which drive away customers. Even big tips don't make him happy--when one patron gives him ten dollars, he says to himself, "What's a 10-spot? A piece of paper crawling with germs." Neal decides to hitchhike out west to be with his gal and winds up riding for a while with a chatty businessman (Edmund McDonald). As fate would have it, the man drops dead of a heart attack while Neal is driving. Not sure what to do, Neal dumps the body and takes his ID, money, and car, and soon discovers that the man was out to cheat his rich father, whom McDonald hadn't seen in years. He picks up a hot bimbo (Ann Savage) who sees through Neal's deception. She threatens to turn him in to the cops and say he murdered McDonald, so he lets her take control of their relationship. Savage basically imprisons him in a cheap motel room, and when they find out that McDonald's dying father is looking for his son, they figure Neal could pose as the son and get some dough out of the old man. But before they can even get out of the motel room, fate takes another hand and trips them both up, and Neal gets up back on the road, with the law just a step or two behind.

This is the movie that critics and film buffs point to as the ultimate example of how a Poverty-Row studio could occasionally create a movie as entertaining and memorable as any big-studio product. You do have to adjust your expectations a bit--after all, the movie was made in a week with B-level actors--but it's one of the best film noirs ever. Neal, who never got past B-movie lead status, is excellent as the sweaty, passive, pathetic guy who may or may not be telling us the truth. Some critics have made some grandiose claims about this movie's use of the unreliable narrator (since it's all in flashback, how do we know Neal is really as innocent and abused as he claims?). I think these critics are mostly just trying to cover up ambiguities and gaps caused not so much by intention as by speed and cheapness of execution, but it is fun to "read" the narrative that way. Savage is just as good as Neal, looking so hard and ugly that she's sexy, and spitting out her lines in a raspy voice. Without a doubt, these are two of noir's greatest characters. The cheapness of the production, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the Orson Welles of B-movies, gives everything an almost surreal feeling; the road scenes are all blatantly shot in a studio in front of a rear projection screen, and a New York City street scene consists of a street sign in darkness and mist. There are no pristine copies of this public domain film around, though some DVDs are better than others. Still, this is one to catch no matter what shape the print is in, and certainly not to be missed if you are a noir fan. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


[Spoilers follow!!]
It's been years since I'd seen this, one of my favorite pre-Code movies, and I'm happy to review it on the occasion of its DVD debut last year as part of Warner’s first Forbidden Hollywood set. The focus of the story, set in a fictional Ohio town, is Jean Harlow as Lil, the title character, a brassy gold digger who works as a secretary for Chester Morris, a married man from a prominent family. She's decided that she'll snag him, come hell or high water, and she gets all dolled up to deliver some papers to him at his home while his wife's away. It takes some doing on her part, but eventually he succumbs to her charms; there is a gap in the narrative here which makes it unclear exactly how far things go between them, but whatever happens, it doesn't completely satisfy Harlow. However, just as she seems ready to go to bat again, the wife (Leila Hyams) comes home and chases her out (Harlow tells her roomie, Una Merkel, “There we were like an uncensored movie…”). Morris's father (Lewis Stone) tries to transfer Harlow to Cleveland, but she won't budge and continues to pester Morris. He goes to her apartment for a showdown, even slapping her, but when Harlow moans, “Do it again, I like it!” he gives up, and winds up getting a divorce and marrying Harlow. She has grand plans for crashing high society (or what passes for it in an Ohio town), but the socialites shun her so she seduces a rich businessman (Henry Stephenson) who's visiting Morris and blackmails him into bringing important folks to her house for a party. The plan works briefly, but when she finds out that her guests left early to attend a "better" party, she throws a fit and leaves town. For a time, she shacks up with Stephenson, but sleeps on the sly with his chauffeur (Charles Boyer in what amounts to a bit part) and when Morris gives Stephenson photos of Harlow and Boyer, she's given the heave-ho. Things come to a head when Harlow comes back to Ohio with a gun, looking for Morris. She shoots him, he recovers, and the shocker is that after all this "immoral" behavior, everybody winds up with a relatively happy ending: Morris remarries Hyams, and Harlow's free and easy in Paris, scamming rich old men with Boyer’s help. Morris and Harlow are in fine form and their scenes together crackle with sexual energy. The supporting cast is strong (though I wish the wonderful Una Merkel had more to do) and includes May Robson in a small role. Highly recommended, especially as a starting point for viewers unfamiliar with the pleasures of pre-Code movies. [DVD]

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


John Beal is a young man who is following in his father's footsteps and becoming a physician. He's engaged to be married to Jane Walsh, who complains that Beal hasn't quite found himself yet--his father thinks his problem is that he has too much youthful exhilaration, as evidenced by the hot-dogging flights he takes in his private plane. One stormy night, Beal gives a young lady a ride to Philadelphia in his plane, but he crashes. He survives but she dies and a love tryst is assumed. Beal is put on probation by the medical board, and Walsh won't leave the big city as Beal wants to, so Beal sets out alone to find himself. He changes his name, rides the rails, works on a road crew, and, out in L.A. where he's befriended by old pal Phillip Huston, gets a job as an airplane mechanic. He starts a flirtatious relationship with ambulance corps nurse Joan Fontaine and, despite his reluctance, she gets him to fly an emergency run (with hysterical patient Dwight Frye). When he's hired as a pilot, she discovers his true identity, as does a reporter named Nosey (Jimmy Conlin). Fontaine tries to arrange a reconciliation between Beal and his father, and things climax with a train wreck in which Beal proves he still has his doctoring skills, and perhaps has finally found himself. That's about all there is to this predictable melodrama, which is a perfectly acceptable way to pass an hour. The biggest surprise is seeing roly-poly comic actor Billy Gilbert (Pettibone in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) in a small but serious role as a train-riding hobo. [TCM]

Monday, May 05, 2008


Wild, this movie isn't. Creepy and disturbing, maybe, but in a bland way. Carroll Baker is a college student living with her parents in New York City. One night, on her way home, she's attacked and raped. She cuts up the clothes she was wearing and flushes them down the toilet, then withdraws, dropping out of school, leaving home and getting a small apartment in a tenement (without telling her parents where she's gone) and taking a job as a cashier at Woolworth's. She doesn't fit in with her neighbors and co-workers, can't cut the job, and has a breakdown. As she's about to jump off a bridge, she is saved by working class mechanic Ralph Meeker. Without knowing anything about her, he takes her home to his apartment (which isn't in much better shape than hers) and tells her to stay and recover while he goes to work. That night, he comes home stumbling drunk and tries to assault her. She kicks him in the eye which knocks him out cold. The next day, he can't remember what happened and thinks his eye injury (which winds up being permanent, requiring him to wear an eye patch) was the result of a bar fight. But though he feeds her and seems to think he's treating her well, he keeps her a prisoner in his apartment, for no reason he can articulate except that she's his "last chance." Eventually, these two damaged souls do forge something of a "normal" relationship, though I was not convinced that it would last.

This material might have worked better as a play, as practically all of the last half takes place in Meeker's apartment, though that is also the part of the movie that grows tedious. Neither Meeker not Baker inhabit characters who are all that interesting. We know a little bit about Baker, and the part of the film that focuses on her decline is good, but we know virtually nothing about Meeker's unpleasant character, and we have to accept on faith that he's a nice guy at heart. I did like the fact that much of the first half was shot on the streets of New York, giving the film a kind of neo-realist feel. It was also great fun to see Jean Stapleton, who I know mostly as Edith Bunker, as a hooker who, in a bizarre scene, manhandles a shirtless drunken sailor. A very young Doris Roberts also has a small role as a Woolworth's worker, and Mildred Dunnock is good as Baker's neurotic mother. For Ralph Meeker completists only. [TCM]

Saturday, May 03, 2008

BAGDAD (1949)

Maureen O'Hara, of the fiery red hair and fiery Irish temperament, is Marjan, a Bedouin princess who was raised in England and has returned to her homeland to see her father. Sadly, just before she arrives, he is killed in a raid by the Black Robes, a rebel tribe. The Pasha (Vincent Price) tells her that the notorious Prince Ahmed is the leader of the Robes and she vows revenge. She finds herself attracted to Hassan (Paul Christian), a lowly camel driver, but we soon find out that he is actually Ahmed, trying to clear his name of any connection with the Black Robes--even Ahmed's cousin Raizul (John Sutton) thinks he's guilty. O'Hara, in a ridiculous plot contrivance, sings at a café (with very bad lip syncing), and soon finds out that Hassan is Ahmed. She has an altercation with the Pasha, whom she discovers is in league with the leader of the Robes, who is in fact not Ahmed but Raizul, and she learns that the Robes are planning to kill some visiting nobility. Marjan and Ahmed soon join forces to set things right. This feels very much like a typical "exotic" B-movie of its era, except it's in bright Technicolor, which is a big plus. I've decided that, as much as I like Maureen O'Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, she's really not a great actress. She is lovely and can express disdain, but most other emotions seem beyond her. Price does his usual shtick, and I noticed halfway through that he keeps his right eye shut throughout the entire film; I have no idea why. Swiss actor Christian (who later went by Paul Hubschmid) makes a fetching leading man. This is passable 40's escapist fare, done no better than it had to be. [TCM]

Friday, May 02, 2008


In 19th century Corsica, the Franchi family is holding a huge feast in celebration of the birth of an heir; because of a blood feud, Colonna (Akim Tamiroff) and his men invade the party and slaughter as many members of the Franchi family as they can. The doctor (H.B. Warner) attending the birth delivers Siamese twins and manages to escape with them along with the loyal Lorenzo (J. Carroll Naish). The doc separates the twins and to ensure their safety, they are split up; Mario (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is left with the Dupree family and grows up privileged in Paris; Lucien (also Fairbanks) stays with Lorenzo in the Corsican woods and becomes a Robin Hood-type bandit, stealing mostly from the Colonnas. They can feel each others pains and ecstasies even though they aren't aware of each other's existence. When they turn 21, they are brought together by the doctor. They vow revenge against Colonna but their budding relationship is strained when they both develop a crush on the lovely Countess Gravini (Ruth Warrick) whom Mario knew previously in Paris. When Colonna tries to force her to become his wife, the brothers go to her aid, but Lucien becomes jealous when he senses that she and Mario are in love. A plot involving a disguise and a death-simulating drug is carried out, and swordfights and gunplay follow to a satisfying ending.

I tend to think of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a star of swashbuckler epics like his father had been, but according to Robert Osborne on TCM, this was his first swashbuckling role, and it came over 15 years into his acting career; as far as I can tell, he only did one other similar role (in 1947's SINBAD THE SAILOR). Still, he's very good here, charming and handsome and athletic, and he does a nice job of giving the two brothers different personalities. There is some fine split-screen work, though I suspect much of the "twinning" is done with a stand-in. Still, it's effective. Warrick, who didn't specialize in glamour parts, is very good, as are Warner and Naish. Tamiroff isn't bad, but he sounded a little too much like Boris Badenov from Rocky & Bullwinkle for me to take him seriously. Henry Wilcoxon has a small role as the Franchi patriarch who gets killed off in the first few minutes, and Gloria Holden (of DRACULA'S DAUGHTER fame) is the mother of the twins. Solid classic-era adventure, lacking the bells and whistles (and color) of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, but still quite fun. [TCM]