Sunday, September 28, 2008


Roy Rogers is as much a part of my pop culture background as he is for most baby boomers, but until now, I had never seen him in a movie. When TCM had a Roy Rogers day a while back, running mostly hour-long B-westerns, I picked the one that sounded most interesting to watch. Here, Rogers plays a dual role, and one of them is a bad guy! Well, they're both bad guys, but one is the same kind of revisionist "Jesse James as Robin Hood" figure which Tyrone Power played in 1939. This movie is framed from the beginning as an alternate history, a "what if" tale in which James survives his notorious shooting and goes underground to help common folk who have been bilked by the railroad; slimy Pierre Watkin gets settlers to work the land with the promise that they can buy it for $3 an acre, but later he reneges on the deal and tells them the price is $100. James, working with the tacit approval of the local sheriff (Gabby Hayes), holds up trains carrying railroad money and gives the booty to pals of his so they can buy their land. Two women reporters (Sally Payne and Gale Storm) hoping to make names for themselves come to town to report on the supposed return of James. Also in town is rough tough gambler Clint Burns (also Roy Rogers), a Jesse James look-alike, who is hired by Watkin to create havoc like burning down farmhouses to turn the people against James. I must admit that at one point. I was unsure of which Rogers was the good guy and which the bad guy, but by final shootout, all works out, and Storm even gives up reporting to ride off into the sunset with good ol' Jesse. Rogers is actually not bad, especially as the bad guy when he gets to glower silently rather than smile and sing. This was also my first Gabby Hayes movie, and I had to laugh at how much he sounded like Claude Starrett's imitation of him in BLAZING SADDLES. [TCM]

Thursday, September 25, 2008


With the exception of the fabulous Mamie Van Doren B-film GIRLS TOWN, I'm not a fan of the juvenile delinquent movies that Hollywood cranked out in the 50's (in addition to a handful which came out in the depression years). However, it's interesting to find out that the British were doing this kind of thing in the postwar era. The main narrative is framed as a warning tale told to a new delinquent girl (a very young Diana Dors) by the Head of the Juvenile Board (Flora Robson). Jean Kent plays the title character, a lower-class teenager who is fired from a job at a pawnbroker's for "borrowing" a piece of jewelry; when her dad beats her up, she runs away, gets an apartment, and falls in with slimy Peter Glenville who helps her get a job as a hat check girl at a rather rough night club run by Herbert Lom. She does a favor for Glenville when she runs an errand for him involving pawning some jewels, but later he beats her up when she won't sleep with him. A musician (Dennis Price) takes a paternal interest in her and lets her stay with him until she finds another place. However, it turns out that the pawned jewels were stolen and, as it's her word against Glenville's, she's sentenced to three years in reform school. Kent has a bad attitude about her surroundings until she becomes buddies with Jill Balcom, the "good conduct girl," who teaches her how to get away with things under the noses of the matrons. When another girl snitches on Kent and a fight breaks out, Kent escapes, goes back to the big city and falls in with handsome but mean mobster Griffin Jones, who, in the film's best scene, tries to strangle her in a train compartment. Things go even further downhill from there until a last meeting with Price ends in tragedy. The title seems a bit off for two reasons: 1) poor Kent is never seen having a very good time at all; 2) though she's supposed to be 16, Kent looked much closer to her actual age of 27, and reform school friend Balcom looks closer to 30. Aside from Lom and Jones, no one else gets a chance to stand out. Rather drab, with its murky noirish look the most compelling thing on display. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


This mild B-crime comedy is Damon Runyon-lite, and, since the movie adaptations of Runyon (Guys and Dolls, Lady for a Day, Lemon Drop Kid) are all themselves gangster-lite, filled with crooks and lowlifes who never do anything really bad, this film so airy and fluffy that it risks floating away. But though the script could have used another draft, the acting is OK and the central character is unique: a wealthy and powerful gangster (Cesar Romero) who is so soft-hearted that he can't bring himself to kill any of his rivals, so he makes it look like they’ve been rubbed out while actually keeping them imprisoned, in comfort, in the basement of his mansion. It takes a while for this conceit to become clear, so the opening scene doesn't make much sense at the time: Milton Berle, Romero's chief sidekick, walks in on a bloody scene in which a shopowner and two thugs have killed each other in a dispute and plants evidence to make it look as if Romero was responsible. Later, we realize he does this to keep up his boss's tough-guy reputation.

The rest of the contorted narrative barely makes sense: at Christmas, Romero takes a shine to a young lady (Virginia Gilmore) working as a department store child-wrangler, assumes she likes children, and hires her as a nanny. However, since he doesn't have any kids, he has Berle get him an urchin from the streets (Stanley Clements) to pose as his son. Meanwhile, as Romero romances Gilmore, he has to deal with his main rival, Sheldon Leonard. In the holiday spirit, the two declare a truce, but later when some of his “dead” henchmen get out of the mansion prison, Leonard realizes Romero is a pussycat and he decides to get rid of him once and for all. How it all plays out from here is good fun that I won’t spoil. I wish the movie’s set-up had been stronger: we don’t get enough background about any of the main characters to make us care about them, and the chemistry between Romero and Gilmore is zilch—I can see Romero trying, but Gilmore has no personality. Berle is very good, and other fine support comes from Charlotte Greenwood (who gets a novelty dance number to show off her crazy long legs), Marc Lawrence, Frank Jenks, Leonard, and the young Clements, who went on to play the street kid Tony in GOING MY WAY. There is also a lovely Christmas tree in Romero's apartment. Harmless fun which could have been better with stronger writing. [FMC]

Sunday, September 21, 2008


One of the few surf movies I've stuck with to the end, in addition to GIDGET and WINTER A-GO-GO (which is a surf movie in ski drag). There are several plotlines to follow here: 1) Pamela Tiffin is a sorority girl being watched over by her uncles (Woody Woodbury and Paul Lynde) who have an old-fashioned vaudeville nightclub act which is barely making them a living. One night at the club, just as the uncles are about to get fired, Woodbury does a comedy routine which is an inexplicable success and the nightclub owner revamps the club into a student hangout called Surf's Up! 2) Rich young playboy James Darren, who has a little black book called a "filly file," falls for Tiffin and has his work cut out for him trying to get her to realize he's serious about her. 3) When he finally succeeds, his grandfather, thinking Tiffin is just a gold digger, tries to scotch the deal by sending college prof Ellen Burstyn to the club, in disguise, to get evidence that illegal gambling and underage drinking is going on so he can close the club. However, Burstyn winds up sympathetic to the kids (and wooed by Woodbury), so the grandfather gets some buddies to infiltrate the club to plant false evidence. It takes a last-minute blackmail plan by the uncles to save the day, for themselves and for the kids.

I can't make any grandiose claims for this as movie art, but it's much more interesting than any of the Frankie & Annette beach movies I've tried to watch, and it has the pleasure of a bizarre cast. First off, there's Burstyn in her first movie role (billed as Ellen McRae), almost unrecognizable as young blonde woman, though her distinctive voice gives her away. Future Gilligan's Island star Bob Denver is Darren's beatnik sidekick, and future Gilligan's Island co-star Tina Louise is stripper Topaz McQueen, who is secret works as a math tutor for the frat boys. Nancy Sinatra is Denver's girlfriend, and Claudia Martin, daughter of Dean Martin, has a small role as a sorority sister. Classic-era actors George Raft, Robert Armstrong, and Allen Jenkins have cameos, as does Roger Smith who had just finished several seasons on TV as studly detective Jeff Spencer on 77 Sunset Strip; Louis Quinn, who played horse-race gambler Roscoe on Strip, is the club owner. Woodbury isn't very funny, and Lynde isn't given much to do. Darren and Tiffin are a nice-looking couple of kids; watch for a Pepsi plug--the movie's title was a Pepsi slogan at the time. Kind of fun for its genre. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

GAS! (1971)

This crazy-ass Roger Corman flick is mentioned on a lot of sci-fi sites and blogs for a couple of reasons: 1) technically, it is set in the future and falls just within the parameters of the apocalyptic film genre, as hinted at by its subtitle: "…Or, It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It"; 2) a sci-fi plot device sets the plot in motion: an experimental gas is accidentally released which causes the death, by premature aging, of everyone over 25. But once that occurs, in the first 10 minutes of the movie, there is no more science fiction, indeed, no more plot to speak of, except for the conceit that the under-25's couldn't make a better world on their own. The film becomes essentially a hippie vaudeville show, somewhat like the stage musical Hair without musical numbers, and Hair without the music would be tedious. This film isn't completely terrible, but I can't recommend people subjecting themselves to it film unless they are 60's film buffs--yes, it's from 1971, but it's a 60's movie in every other meaningful way.

Once the gas is released, our leading hippie couple (Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos) take off on a road trip with some friends, including Cindy Williams (from Laverne & Shirley), But Cort (from Harold & Maude), Talia Shire (Pacino's sister in The Godfather films) and Ben Vereen, to find a utopian commune in New Mexico. What follows is a series of largely unrelated satirical sketches, some of which are funny--when they burn books from a library to stay warm, someone expresses outrage until it's explained that it's Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins feeding the flames--but most of which are not, or are carried on far past their prime amusement threshold. Along the way, they run into a motorcycle-riding Edgar Allan Poe with a raven on his shoulder, a group of raping and pillaging football jocks, a Hell's Angel gone respectable, an effeminate Native American who wants to give the English language back to the white man, and a marshal named McLuhan (that's what passes for wit here). Williams is pregnant and ready to deliver, but refuses to bring her child into such a world, so she simply doesn't give birth.

During a gunfight scene, it's not the bullets that kill, but the cowboy actor names which are yelled out with each shot ("William S. Hart!! Gene Autry!!"). When someone asks if killing was necessary, Corff replies, "Maybe I could have winged 'em with a Dale Robertson or a Clint Eastwood." And that's about the funniest line in the movie. The continued sighting of road signs about seeking advice from an oracle is a "Laugh-In"-like gag that leads to a very weak punch line. The "fascist jocks" storyline is given way too much attention, but like everything else, goes nowhere. The whole thing feels like it might have worked as an off-Broadway revue, but as a movie, it's all presented far too literally. Some songs are by Country Joe (who has a cameo) and the Fish. The film's title is often cited as "Gas-s-s-s," though the animated credit sequence simply calls it "Gas." [DVD]

Monday, September 15, 2008


Kay Francis doing what she does best, starring in a pre-Code movie, long-suffering and dressed to the nines. Here, she's a successful fashion designer who has, for several years, been carrying on an affair with Alan Dinehart, a married real estate mogul, despite constant wooing from her architect friend Roland Young. When her handsome brother (Allen Vincent) comes to town, Francis decides that the two should take a break, fearing that Vincent would be judgmental about the arrangement. Dinehart reluctantly agrees, but complications ensue: 1) Vincent meets Dinehart's daughter (Gloria Stuart) and the two fall in love; 2) Dinehart asks his wife for a divorce but she won't give him one; 3) Dinehart tells Stuart about his situation, thinking that she's a girl of modern morals and will understand, but actually both kids have a bit of the prig in them and they freak out, with Vincent taking a job in South America to get away. Francis and Dinehart split up until, a year later, Vincent returns and a melodramatic plot device gets everyone together for a reconciliation, partly engineered by good friend Young.

At 59 minutes, this is one breezy-fast soap opera told in a torrent of choppy staccato-paced scenes. I assume this was a second-feature "programmer," though it certainly has grade-A movie values, and it would have benefited from a little more time for character and plot development, but it's still fun to watch. Francis is fine, and it's interesting to see Young, usually cast as a slightly befuddled but sly older man, playing a romantic second lead, though we never for a moment believe that Francis thinks of him as anything but a good buddy. I usually love Stuart, but here, in her first film role, she's a little tentative (and her character is not especially likable, a rare type for her). Dinehart is too drab; we don't know what Francis sees in him to inspire her love. Marjorie Gateson is the nasty wife and Louise Beavers is a maid. The casual nature of the adulterous affair here would not have been possible a few years later when the Production Code was more strictly enforced. The title, BTW, refers not to anything racy, but to Roland Young's assumption that all great things done by men (like building skyscrapers, which Dinehart does in the course of the film) are inspired by women. [TCM]

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Research scientist Brenda Marshall is working long hours on a promising new anesthetic which she plans to test on herself. One night, Marshall almost hits a drunken woman (Ruth Ford) with her car; Ford is OK, but she meets up with a shyster lawyer in a plot thread to which we will return later. Marshall has been putting boyfriend William Gargan off until her experiments are done, but her assistant (Hillary Brooke) also wants Gargan and deliberately sets a chemical fire. Gargan saves her but she winds up horribly disfigured and Brooke makes Gargan think that Marshall doesn't want to see him, and vice versa. In the midst of her misery, Marshall is visited by Ford, looking for a little blackmail money. They tussle and Ford falls out a window to her death. The body is ID'd as Marshall, so she leaves town and has plastic surgery to look like Ford, then she goes back home and poses as a dear old friend of Marshall's and sets out for a nice dish of cold revenge, though she soon winds up under suspicion for her own murder. For most of its running time, this B-noir, an early effort from director Anthony Mann, is fun, with interesting plot twists and decent performances, especially from Marshall--having fallen from Warner Brothers to B-studio Republic, she looks a bit anorexic and would retire from acting by 1950. Gargan is OK though he looks a little weird with a Hitler mustache. Unfortunately, the film is marred by a very weak ending; it seems the writers just couldn't figure out who should be punished and who should be redeemed so they just threw in the towel and ended the movie with a cheap trick. But until the last couple of minutes, it's definitely worth watching. Also with George Chandler, H.B. Warner and Lyle Talbot. [DVD]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A fun little diversion about the lives and loves of Hollywood stunt men. William Boyd (better known as Hopalong Cassidy in movies and TV) is Skipper, the friendly, boisterous central figure of a group of stunt men and extras who work together in the day and carouse at night. Boyd insists that stunt work and romance don't go together, but his buddy Slugger (William Bakewell) insists on getting married; on the night of their celebration, a bottle gets broken which is taken as a sign of impending death. Slugger tells his new wife he'll give up the stunt racket, but he doesn't, and, well, the omen of the bottle comes true. In the meantime, Skipper and his roommate Bob (William Gargan) save Fran (Dorothy Wilson), a starving actress, from committing suicide at a party; they take her home, feed her, and help her get back on her feet. Both guys fall for her, but Boyd gets her and, despite his own beliefs, marries her and stays in the business. When Fran's worrying causes her to show up at the set as Skipper is about to perform a particularly dangerous stunt involving tall buildings and fire, he gets nervous, messes up, and almost causes Gargan's death. Skipper is more or less blackballed by the studios and quits the business, but when Fran gets pregnant, Skipper takes a job on a location crew and ends up taking another shot at a very dangerous stunt, falling down a waterfall. An absurdly abrupt and happy ending is the only real misstep.

When the film airs on TCM again, it's worth catching if only for the first five minutes, which features an elaborate bank robbery that we soon realize is part of the filming of a movie. The stunts here, and indeed in most of the rest of the film, are quite well done, though the fire stunt is marred by a bad ending effect. There is a wild car chase scene at the finale that reminded me at times of the great car chase in Quentin Tarentino's half of GRINDHOUSE. Boyd and Gargan have good "buddy chemistry," and the supporting cast includes Bruce Cabot, Lon Chaney Jr. (under the name Creighton Chaney), and Phyllis Fraser, who would retire from films in a few years when she married Random House publisher Bennett Cerf. [TCM]

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Joan Crawford, an independently wealthy playwright, fires Jack Palance, the leading actor in her new play, saying he's not romantic enough. Indeed, with his craggy, scarred face, he's not very attractive, but he does have an intangible something that Crawford can't resist when she runs into him on a cross-country train trip a few weeks later. By the time they reach San Francisco, they're in love. Crawford marries him and is blissfully happy for a time, but when we discover she uses an elaborate dictaphone device in her home office in order to write her plays, we know that will become a major plot device, and sure enough thanks to the recorder, she soon discovers he doesn't feel the same way about her, and is indeed plotting with his slutty con artist pal Gloria Grahame to kill her for her money. In a very effective scene, Crawford listens to the disc that has Palance and Grahame discussing how to get Crawford out of the way, and the disc gets stuck at Grahame saying “I know a way…” over and over. First, Crawford acts hysterical and helpless, but soon she has concocted a plan to get back at them both, but can she go through with it without getting caught or backing out? Plotwise, this is a solid old-fashioned damsel-in-distress melodrama, but in terms of style, it's is an archetypal film noir—in fact, a close-up still of Crawford's face from this movie is on the cover of an early edition of Alain Silver's authoritative film noir encyclopedia. Lots of shadows, dark city streets, close-ups of sweaty faces, and an atmosphere of paranoia all contribute to the noir feel. There is also a wonderful dream sequence (sort of) in which Crawford imagines carrying out her plan, followed by the climactic plan itself which, of course, doesn't quite run smoothly. The movie is a bit long, but the tense last half-hour is superb. Crawford is fine, but get ready for lots of close-ups of her, usually grimacing in emotional agony. Palance is OK, but Grahame is better. The small supporting cast includes Bruce Bennett and Mike Connors in thankless roles as Crawford's lawyers. [DVD]

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008

KING RAT (1965)

I usually avoid prisoner-of-war movies (despite my having been, or maybe because I was, a fan of "Hogan's Heroes" in my youth), but this was recommended by an e-mail friend and I enjoyed it. What sets this one apart from the breed is that it's not an action movie about escaping, but a character study about men doing their best to survive their ordeal. The story is set at an actual Japanese POW camp called Changi in Singapore, situated between the sea and a particularly inhospitable jungle, and because escape attempts aren't really much of a problem, security is a little lighter than normal for such a camp. Most of the prisoners are from England or Australia, but George Segal, the title character, is an American soldier named King (no one actually calls him King Rat, but he is involved in a rat-breeding scheme). He has managed to make himself quite comfortable as the head honcho of a vast black market operation, and most everyone of any rank winds up kowtowing to Segal for favors. The man who most resents Segal's position is a British lieutenant, Tom Courtenay, who never stops trying to bring Segal down. When Segal discovers that Brit officer James Fox can speak Malay, he gets Fox on board to be a go-between with the guards, which irritates Courtenay all the more. Fox, the character we get to know the best, becomes the moral center of the film, and over time, he comes to almost admire the unscrupulous Segal, especially late in the film when Fox gets gangrene and the doctors threaten amputation; Segal, who supposedly is only looking out for himself, goes out of his way to strike a deal to get enough black-market drugs to cure Fox's infection. We also see that Segal is hardly the only prisoner to engage in morally questionable behavior; even the upright colonel (John Mills) isn't above looking the other way when Courtenay exposes a scheme to skim food off prisoner's rations. The film is set in 1945 and there is some suspense generated when the prisoners are led to believe that, even though the Allied victory is certain, the Japanese will engage in wholesale slaughter rather than give up the camp. However, things come to a very different conclusion, less tragic but one that presents an interesting insight into Segal's character and brings a sad end to the relationship between Segal and Fox.

I've never particularly liked George Segal, but he gives a knockout performance here which is all the more impressive for being one that by necessity does not flesh his character out completely—we know almost nothing about his life before the camp. Fox is excellent, as usual, as is Mills and, in smaller roles, Denholm Elliott and Patrick O'Neal. Courtenay seems to have been good at playing irritating jackasses you love to hate; his character is a lot like the one he played the same year in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Richard Dawson has a small role at the very end as the British soldier who arrives in advance of the liberation troops. The person who was in charge of applying the sweat stains to the prisoners' shirts was clearly overworked; obviously they were going for realism, but the stains look a little too "planned" and were almost distracting at times. [DVD]