Friday, August 29, 2008


There is a security leak at the government's nuclear physics lab in Lakeview, California, and FBI agent Dennis O'Keefe is in charge of finding out who's responsible. One of his fellow agents calls with a hot tip, but is shot in the head in a phone booth before he can say anything more. Commie agent Philip Van Zandt is followed to San Francisco and put under surveillance, but he winds up killed by his own people before the FBI can learn anything from him. O'Keefe is soon paired up with a Scotland Yard agent (Louis Hayward) who is on the trail of someone who is shipping paintings to England which have top secret formulas hidden on them, visible under ultraviolet light. They stake out the apartment of the artist (Onslow Stevens) and soon realize that someone very high up at the Lakeview lab is leaking the info to Stevens within 24 hours of each formula's finalization. The four chief scientists and their secretary are all watched carefully, but the formulas are still getting out. The chief suspects are the German refugee scientist (Carl Esmond) and the secretary (Louise Allbritton). An art shop and a laundry become important sites of surveillance, and Raymond Burr pops up as a thuggish spy who threatens the lives of our G-men before the spy ring is finally brought down. This is a solid, fast-moving, documentary-style spy thriller, like THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET or T-MEN, with a noirish feel. Some San Francisco location shooting and a general lack of heightened melodrama help give the movie the ring of authenticity. One scene later in the film involving a selfless landlady (Tamara Shayne) goes a bit over the top, but it doesn't unbalance the film. The leads are good as is Allbritton, and I like the fact that there is no extraneous business involving romances or a British-American rivalry, both of which I thought would surely crop up. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Among WWII homefront films, this may not be the best (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY is a better film) or the most well known (that would be MRS. MINIVER), but it is surely the most sentimental, with all the good and bad characteristics associated with that quality. The film chronicles a few weeks in the town of Ithaca, California, as experienced by the Macauley family. Fay Bainter is the mother watching over her brood since the death of her husband (Ray Collins, who narrates from the great beyond); her eldest son (Van Johnson) is off to war, leaving her with daughter Donna Reed, teenager Mickey Rooney, and pre-schooler Butch Jenkins. Rooney has a night job at the telegraph office and has to deliver the inevitable "we regret to inform you" telegrams to families whose soldier sons have been killed. We also get to know Rooney's teacher (Mary Nash), his handsome, soft-hearted boss at the telegraph office (James Craig), and the older telegraph operator (Frank Morgan) who teaches Rooney how to get him out of a stupor if need be. We also see Johnson as he ships out to battle and befriends John Craven, a soldier and orphan who loves to hear Johnson's stories about his family and hometown, and hopes someday to visit Ithaca himself. It's not really a spoiler to note that, at the end of the movie, Craven gets his wish due to unhappy circumstances.

The first time I saw this movie (based on a book by William Saroyan), I loved it: it was sweet and sad and funny and poetic, and felt a bit like a Ray Bradbury small-town story without the fantasy elements. But the more I watch the film, the more its sentimentality and "poetry" bother me. Most of the characters are awfully two-dimensional, and eventually they all wind up speaking in the same inspirational Saroyanesque voice. Johnson and Craven are too good to be true, Morgan (who I usually like) is awfully one-note as a sloppy drunkard, and Craig starts off well but is beaten down by conventional stereotype. Only Rooney fully escapes the weight of sentiment, delivering perhaps his best performance ever as the only character here who feels real. The most awkward scene, despite its good intentions, is a town festival which highlights the multicultural make-up of Ithaca: we see Greeks, Swedes, Armenians, Mexicans, and Russians engaging in old-country activities while "My Country 'Tis of Thee" plays in the background and Craig gives us a lecture on ethnic diversity--of course, as far as I could see, there were no Germans or Japanese represented. Despite all my complaints, I still enjoy watching this film once in a while: it's well made (being a glossy MGM production) and has a cozy small-town Americana flavor. Barry Nelson and Robert Mitchum have small roles as soldiers at liberty who go out to the movies with Reed and her friend. [TCM]

Sunday, August 24, 2008


This hour-long film, which survives only in a battered-up but watchable print from the George Eastman House collection, is included as a generous extra on the DVD of Sessue Hayakawa's THE DRAGON PAINTER. Certainly the oldest movie I've reviewed yet, it is also one of the earliest "disaster" movies. Hayakawa plays Yamaki, an old man who lives by the sea with his daughter Toya San (Tsuru Aoki). She lives under a family curse: because an ancestor defiled a sacred altar, Buddha has cursed the Yamaki daughters that if any one of them dares to take a husband, "the wrath of the gods shall be made manifest." Tom (Frank Borzage), an American sailor, is washed up on the shore after a typhoon wrecks his ship, and he falls in love with Toya San. He not only convinces her to marry him in a Christian ceremony, but also gets converts Yamaki to Christianity--a still rather starling scene shows the old man tossing a statue of Buddha off a cliff and replacing it with a crude wooden cross. Like in a Frankenstein movie, the incensed villagers march on Yamaki's house, tearing it down and killing him even as he wields his cross like a vampire hunter. In a well-done disaster movie climax, the long dormant volcano Sakura-Jima erupts, destroying the village and killing practically everyone except Toya San and Tom who escape on a passing freighter. Tom tells his wife that, though her gods may be powerful, his omnipotent Christian god has been proven greatest of all by saving her so she can "perpetuate" her race. I've never thought of Buddhists as being religiously intolerant, so their fury at the conversion of Yamakis was quite surprising. The two disaster scenes, the typhoon and the volcano, are both quite well done, even though to modern eyes the special effects involving miniature sets aren't terribly convincing. Hayakawa, playing a character who is a good 30 or 40 years older than him, is unrecognizable under the old-age make-up. He and Aoki were married in real life after the film was completed. Apparently this movie was inspired by the eruption of the actual Sakura-Jima volcano earlier that year. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


A nifty little thriller from the RKO B-movie ranks, every bit as good in its way as more well-known early sound shockers like DOCTOR X. The film begins with gangster Frank Reicher, dying in lots of pain in a hospital in Vienna. He begs doctor Warner Oland to put him out of his misery, and cinches the deal by revealing the existence of a million dollars of stolen loot, stashed in the home of Mrs. Marble (Jane Darwell) in a small American town. When Darwell reads of Reicher's death, she realizes she’s rich and decides to spend the rest of her life traveling, but as she heads up the dark stairs to retrieve the cash, she hears limping footsteps and sees the ghostly, glowing face of the dead man. In her fright, she tumbles down the stairs to her death. Meanwhile, in the same small town, undercover cop Stuart Erwin nabs young and pretty medium Dorothy Wilson for being a fraud, but she insists that she actually has psychic powers and her father (Dudley Digges) talks the cops into letting her help investigate the mysterious death of Darwell. The only witness is the housekeeper (Gertrude Hoffman) who is a bit on the secretive side and insists she knows nothing. Oland arrives from Vienna and not only tells the cops about the stash but also reveals that Darwell was the gangster's wife; he and the inspector agree to work behind Wilson's back to find the money.

It soon becomes apparent that: 1) Oland is up to more than just being helpful, 2) Hoffman knows more than she lets on, and 3) Wilson actually does have psychic powers. A secret passage gets found which leads to a very effective shock scene involving one character falling to a nasty death down a horrifically large and deep well. After some more spookiness and death, things are resolved and the cop and the medium realize they’ve fallen in love. The leads (Erwin and Wilson) are the weakest things about the movie; Erwin plays the cop as a kind of hayseed guy who is smarter than he seems, but too often he's used for bland comic relief. Wilson is actually quite good in her creepy trance scenes, but otherwise she is terribly wooden and displays zero personality. The rest of cast is fine, particularly Digges. There are some interesting directorial choices made along the way, including a handful of effective overhead shots and a weird two-shot of Oland and Hoffman that anticipates Ingmar Bergman. Based on a story by prolific mystery author Edgar Wallace. [TCM]

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Lana Turner is a stage actress who retires to live the good life with her new rich husband, Dan O'Herlihy. His daughter (Karin Mossberg) resents Turner, mostly just because she's at that rebellious age, and she finds validation from her new boyfriend, George Chakiris, a slick, small-time hustler who hangs out with his druggie friends at a psychedelic nightclub where they ingest LSD-soaked sugar cubes (hence the title). When O'Herlihy and Turner are caught at sea during a storm, he is killed and she returns home, distraught, over-medicated, and suffering from amnesia, but also Mossberg's legal guardian. Chakiris, knowing that Mossberg might be in for a lot of money and knowing that Turner opposes their marriage, talks her into a plan to get Turner out of the way by dosing her medicine with LSD and pulling nasty pranks on her while she's high. They go to court to get Turner declared nuts, then get married, but the wedding party turns into a freakout orgy and Chakiris sleeps with Mossberg's best friend. The disgusted Mossberg turns to Richard Egan, a playwright friend of Turner's who also holds a torch for the actress, tells him what she's done, and he writes a play for Turner in which she'll play a character based on herself; he hopes the play will work as therapy and she'll come back to her senses before she's stashed away in an asylum.

This trippy 60's film, part of another "Camp Classics" set, has a reputation as a kind of MST3K, so-bad-it's-good flick, but I think it's actually a little better than that, though it is best appreciated as "guilty pleasure" camp. Underneath all the LSD references and light-show visuals, this is an old-fashioned GASLIGHT-type melodrama that might have starred Ingrid Bergman or Joan Fontaine if it had been made in the 40's. But it was made in the 60's with Lana Turner nearing the end of her career, and though she might have hoped that it would provide her with a "Baby Jane" comeback, it wasn't good enough to do so. But there are several pleasures to be had here: Turner is actually fine, in a 50's Joan Crawford mode, but she does have a scary face-lift look in her close-ups. Mossberg is not so fine; she seems altogether too goody-goody and her rebellious moods never ring true. Chakiris, a long way from his prestigious Oscar-winning turn as Bernardo in WEST SIDE STORY is OK as the bad boyfriend, doing his best work when he hits rock bottom in the last few minutes. The best scene, and the one everyone who has seen this movie quotes, is in the nightclub when druggie Carlos East decides to dose a musclebound jerk's beer with an acid chaser, snarling, "I'm gonna cube that mother, but good!" The guy's freakout is the highlight of the movie. Mexican actress Regina Torne plays a character called the Queen Bee, known as the lowest form of skank, a drug casualty groupie whom we first see with the muscly bad-tripper; by the end, she's enabling Chakiris' final freakout. If you have a high tolerance for this kind of campy exaggerated melodrama, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. [DVD]

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Here's the situation on the island of Rhodes in 280 BC: a giant statue, the Colossus of the title, has just been built in honor of King Serse. It looks like a welcoming figure, but it is actually a huge weapon, capable of shooting molten lead, liquid fire, or catapulted rocks against anyone trying to enter (or leave) the island's main harbor. Serse is a despot, looking to ally himself with some Phoenicians out to plunder passing Greek ships, but two different groups are planning to overthrow the king: a group of Rhodian rebels led by the hot blond hunk Peliocles (Georges Marchal), and a group of Phoenician soldiers led by the King's traitorous assistant Thar (Conrado Sanmartin). Meanwhile, Greek soldier Dario (Rory Calhoun), who came to Rhodes for a vacation with his uncle, winds up in the thick of both plots.

As a cross between an Italian Hercules film and a Hollywood Biblical epic, this is fairly satisfying. It's directed by spaghetti Western king Sergio Leone and uses the widescreen process very nicely--it's called "SuperTotalScope," so you know it's got to be super *and* total (why they couldn't get the word "ultimate" in there somewhere is beyond me.) The Colossus was real, one of the Seven Wonders, but the story here is total fiction. Those who like sword and sandal epics for the sweaty muscled men who get even sweatier when being tortured will love this film, as will those who like Byzantine plots involving bad kings, studly heroes, and the lovely and improbably modern-looking women who love the heroes. Calhoun is not very good--his range consists of smirking or looking quizzical--but he's actually better than most of the musclemen who starred in the Italian hero films of the era (Reg Park, Alan Steele, etc.). The lovely Lea Massari, best known as the girl who vanishes in Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA, is good as the femme fatale who leads Calhoun on a wild goose chase through some creepy secret passages in the King's castle. The best scenes involve the Colossus, especially a fight on the shoulder of the giant structure, and the climactic storm and earthquake don't disappoint. This is another movie from the Warners Camp Classics set, and though it doesn't strike me as campy at all, it is fun to watch. [DVD]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


As I've recently watched a couple of movies from Warner Home Video's Camp Classics DVD sets, it may be time to make a stab at explaining the camp experience. It's a difficult concept to pin down. In general, people usually mean some work of art is camp if it feels like a "guilty pleasure"; for example, if they like it even though it seems like bad art (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE), or if they like it for the wrong reasons (for example, my friends and I enjoying the outrageous acting in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). Sometimes, something seems campy if minor issues or emotions are heightened all out of proportion, as when Edie Beale calls a court order to clean up her property "the most atrocious thing ever to happen in America" in GREY GARDENS. Some works of art are campy on purpose, though it's easier to wind up with just a bad movie (HOWARD THE DUCK, the WICKER MAN remake) than with a good piece of camp (ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, most of John Waters' films, Adam West as Batman). I think most of the movies in the Warner sets are truly only marginally campy, but I'll delve into them anyway over the next few days, starting with this would-be historical epic.

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) returns to his people with many riches and slaves, and wants to build an inviolable tomb to hold his possessions. He calls upon the enslaved architect Vashtar (John Robertson Justice) to oversee the construction of this great pyramid, and in exchange, Khufu promises to free Vashtar's people. Vashtar designs an elaborate and secret system of passage blocks which will be locked in place upon the death of the Pharaoh, and only he and his hunky assistant Senta (Dewey Martin) know all the secrets of the pyramid; workers who must be told the secrets will wind up either being buried with the Pharaoh or having their tongues ripped out. The building begins with great verve and fanfare, but over fifteen years' time, the people become miserable and Khufu strains the treasuries of the lands which owe him tribute. In lieu of money, Cyprus sends him the sexy Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) and after a brief battle of wills, she becomes his second wife. As Vashtar goes blind, he gives more responsibility to Senta, who saves Khufu's life one day when a test of the labyrinth almost kills him. Meanwhile, the Princess plots to assassinate Khufu, having been told that she will become Queen thirty days after his death. The plot fails, but the Pharaoh ends up dying from his mortal wounds, and from beyond, he has one last trick to play on his greedy wife.

I guess this is being sold as a "Camp Classic" on the mere presence of the often over-the-top actress Joan Collins. I didn't find the movie to be particularly campy, though Collins does make a fine bitch villainess. It's generally enjoyable, but with Howard Hawks directing and William Faulkner having had a hand in the screenplay, it's disappointing that it's not better than it is. The main problem is the acting (when Joan Collins gives the best performance in the movie, I suspect that's a problem) though the acting isn't awful enough to be campy "good/bad" fun. (I really shouldn't be badmouthing Joan since I have seen very little of her, not having been a fan of Dynasty.) Hawkins is not a very commanding presence to be playing such a powerful ruler--where's Yul Brynner when you need him? Justice is bland, Martin is hot but not very charismatic, and aside from Sydney Chaplin as Collins' co-conspirator, there are no other major characters to bond with. The widescreen is put to good use, the sets and costumes are first-rate, and the chilling ending works well. [DVD]

Saturday, August 09, 2008


This film aims to tell the history of America from after the Civil War to the Depression as filtered through the experience of one family, rather like Noel Coward did for England in CAVALCADE. In 1870's Manhattan, Richard Dix is romancing Ann Harding, daughter of a banker, but her father doesn't approve. When an economic crash hits, the father loses the bank and dies. Dix and Harding marry and head out for the frontier. When they are attacked by river pirates, they wind up in Fort Allen, Nebraska, and are helped by a friendly tavern keeper (Edna May Oliver) and her husband, an alcoholic but equally friendly doctor (Guy Kibbee). They settle there, Dix starts a bank and become prosperous, and they have a family, including a son who dies in an unfortunate train accident. A financial boom period follows, then another bust, but Dix, rather like James Stewart in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, gets the bank through it. There are happy times (their daughter's wedding, their grandson's heroism as a pilot in WWI) and sad (the suicide of their son-in-law), and yet another boom/bust cycle, but as the film comes round to the present (1932), the point is made that the American spirit will prevail.

This is obviously a propaganda film, not for war but for toughing out the Depression, and the family saga aspect suffers a bit; the episodic events whiz by too quickly for us to really get a strong feel for the characters, and the actors aren't given many chances to flesh out their roles. Early on, Harding gives an artificial cheerleading speech for America and ruggedness (and Richard Dix) which is the low point of the film, but otherwise, both actors are up to snuff. I love Edna May Oliver and she's in good shape here, playing a variation on her usual brittle, stiff-backed auntie-type. Kibbee's boozing is mostly comic relief, though it leads directly to the tragic death of the son, in a remarkably well-filmed scene. There are some nicely done impressionistic montage sequences which cover the times between the episodes. The actress who plays the daughter (Julie Haydon) is a dead ringer for Harding. Dix's old-age makeup in the end is some of the best aging work I've seen, and he's also good playing his own grandson. Also with Donald Cook as the weak son-in-law. Recommended. [TCM]

Thursday, August 07, 2008


I don't find much of interest on Fox Movie Channel these days--the same Alice Faye and Tyrone Power movies in the daytime and the same mainstream 80's and 90's movies at night. But once in a while, they come through with a doozy, and this is one. Robert Forster is a film student at a California university; the previous year, he was a promising prizewinner, but he's turned to incoherent avant-garde short films (like the one that opens the film), has lost some grant money, and is alienating his friends and colleagues right and left with his bullying attitude and strange theories of film. Forster decides that "reality is the ultimate in theatrical entertainment" (his favorite example is the televised shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald) and begins filming real people in extreme situations: a boy being saved from drowning, two people having sex in the back seat of a car, a suicidal man jumping from a hotel window. He pays a hooker to masturbate in front of his camera and he eggs his girlfriend (Sandra Locke) into an improv bit with a fellow student that nearly leads to rape, then goes off and has an affair with another student (Susanne Benton). He befriends a guy (Floyd Mutrux) who is struggling with his sexual identity and films him trying unsuccessfully to have sex with Benton. Nice fella, huh? By the end, Forester has lost both girls, his film school pals, his faithful camera assistant (a very young Sam Waterston), and a potential studio gig. He goes running on the beach. The end.

This is not a good movie by most objective standards: the production (directed by Noel Black who had just had a small hit with his first film PRETTY POISON) feels amateurish, the acting ranges from indifferent to wooden, and the characters never come to life. However, there are two things about it that almost redeem it. First, Robert Forster does a pretty good job playing a total son-of-a-bitch; he's aloof and obnoxious (and sexy), and to Forster's credit, he never tries to engage the audience's sympathies. His blunt, unfeeling character seems kin to the cameraman he played in MEDIUM COOL. The other interesting thing here is Forster's philosophy of film; his attempts at manipulating reality for entertainment resonate today, from Survivor to Big Brother, from Michael Moore to Flavor Flav. There are also some faint echoes of Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM, though the psychology of Forster's compulsion is never explored. Classic-era player Regis Toomey has a cameo as an aging director who stands for all the things Forster doesn't want to be. The theme song is performed by Bread (yes, the "I wanna make it with you" soft-rock 70's band) and another song has lyrics by Randy Newman. The opening film-within-a-film is fun, but as far as entertainment goes, it's mostly downhill from there. Still, it's worth a look as long as you know what you're getting into. [FCM]

Monday, August 04, 2008


This wartime B-musical revue was based (very loosely, I assume) on a radio show of the same title. Ann Miller, in slightly scatterbrained mode, works off and on as a switchboard operator at KFEL. When she decides she has what it takes to be a DJ; she talks the fuddy-duddy early-morning host of a classical music show (Franklin Pangborn) into thinking he's sick and needs a long rest, and she goes on in his slot, playing swing music for the troops at a nearby Army base. Meanwhile, at the base, her brother (Larry Parks) gets friendly with a couple of new recruits, a rich chocolate heir (William Wright) and his chauffeur (Dick Purcell). They hear Miller on the air and have a bet as to whether she's a hag or a hotsy. Parks takes them home to meet her, though Wright, tired of running into gold diggers, insists on switching identities with Purcell. Of course, she's young and lovely and Wright, whom she thinks is a lowly chauffeur, hits it off with Miller. There are some more complications, but that's about it for the plot. Can she keep her show once Pangborn wises up? Will she wind up with the right guy? Will everything get worked out before the troops are called away?

Miller is charming and Pangborn is funny, but the reason to watch this one is for the musical numbers, staged like music videos, by people like Frank Sinatra ("Night and Day"), Duke Ellington, ("Take the 'A' Train," performed, duh, on a train, though not a subway train as it should have been), Count Basie ("One O'Clock Jump"), and Ella May Morse ("Cow Cow Boogie"). My favorite song here is Bob Crosby doing "Big Noise from Winnetka," a song I only knew previously from Bette Midler's version. Ann doesn't get to dance until the finale when she has a big patriotic tap number. Tim Ryan is fine as the radio boss and his real-life wife Irene Ryan (Granny on "The Beverly Hillbillies") has a funny bit as a ditzy assistant. [TCM]

Friday, August 01, 2008


Just by glancing at an encyclopedia entry on inventor Robert Fulton, I can tell that this movie, about Fulton and the building of the first steamboat, is not grounded in the historical record; for starters, in real life Fulton was almost 40 in 1807 when the film begins, but he's played by the youthful Richard Greene, who was only 22 when he filmed this and at the most could pass for 25. Still, this is a fairly entertaining trifle. Greene comes to New York from Europe to secure funding for his steamboat experiment from Chancellor Livingstone (Henry Stephenson) and begin building, but many obstacles present themselves, including the fact that such prominent New Yorkers as Washington Irving and John Jacob Astor don't think that ships without sails are practical. Still, Stephenson finds a way to funnel some money Greene's way, and Greene hits it off with the Chancellor's niece (Brenda Joyce). Alice Faye plays an innkeeper who provides Greene with room and board, and also raises money for his ship, mostly because she develops a crush on him and deludes herself into thinking that he feels the same way. Fred MacMurray plays a shipbuilder who is sweet on Faye and jealous of Greene, but who reluctantly becomes part of his steamboat team. Ward Bond is a shipyard boss who, afraid that Greene's success might mean the end of his livelihood, sets out to sabotage the boat. A government embargo on ships arriving from Europe (something about an overseas war and neutrality concerns) leads to an exciting scene in which Greene and friends smuggle an engine off a ship at night. Of course, there's little suspense in the outcomes of either the shipbuilding (of course he gets it built) or the romances (of course everyone winds up with the right person). Greene's character is the focus of the narrative, but MacMurray and Faye are the real stars of the movie. Faye is fine playing against type as a blowsy roughneck gal, and MacMurray is surprisingly good as a similarly roughneck laborer. There's a strange little running gag in which Faye keeps almost catching her bartender (Ben Carter) stealing rum. Andy Devine plays the owner of a ferry boat line who plays a crucial part in the smuggling scene. The title is a bit misleading since we don't really see much of Old New York except the harbors. [TCM]