Monday, April 28, 2008


This film contains Liza Minnelli's breakthrough performance; in only her second film role, she was nominated for an Oscar. What's striking to me is how much Liza's character of Pookie Adams is like Liza's character of Sally Bowles in CABARET three years later. We first see Pookie waiting quietly with her father for the bus that will take her from her small town to her freshman year at a New England college. On the bus, she meets up with Jerry (Wendell Burton), another freshman heading off to his all-boy's college not far from hers. She comes off as a total free-spirited kook and Jerry tries to keep his distance, but she forces him to pay attention to her and soon, thanks to the used, sun-roofed VW she buys, she is visiting him on weekends and they begin a relationship. His reserves are worn down eventually (after frolics in a cemetery, a cow field, and an overcrowded campus bar), and they begin renting a cabin regularly on weekends for sex. They tell each other they're in love, but when Jerry tells her that he's going to spend a chunk of his Christmas break helping his beer-swilling jock roommate Charlie (Tim McIntire) with his studies instead of taking her home to meet his folks, she accuses him of being gay. When that doesn't change his mind, she claims to be pregnant. He suggests an abortion, then offers to marry her, but still doesn't change his break plans. In January, she says the baby "went away" (we assume she was never really pregnant) and they carry on as before. At a drunken (but still fairly innocent) dorm bacchanal, she bonds with Charlie and makes a fool of herself. When Jerry stays at his dorm, all alone, during spring break to catch up on classwork, Pookie comes to stay with him. She gives him some space, but grudgingly, and soon he tells her they need a break. Later, when Jerry decides to look her up, he finds out she'd dropped out of school and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, but they do wind up having one more sad little encounter.

Like Sally Bowles, Pookie Adams appears to be a strong-willed individual, but is actually rather fragile and insecure. They both seem flighty, but are also single-minded in getting what they think they want. Both have romances with men who are overwhelmed by them--unlike Brian in CABARET, Jerry isn't presented as gay, just inexperienced (their first lovemaking session is awkward and amusing, and realistic), though the seed of doubt that Pookie plants is never exactly proven wrong; Charlie admits to Jerry that, despite his persona, he's a virgin, assuming that Jerry is, too, which he's not, but that's as much as we see of their holiday week together. Minnelli uses many of the same mannerisms that she does in CABARET, and honestly, I was a little disappointed to see this, as it makes her performance in the later movie seem more like she was dipping into a used back of tricks. (She even references an old friend named Elsie here, just as she does in the song "Cabaret.") Burton is very good handling the potentially awkward role of passive observing male. This is really a two-person show; except for McIntire, no one else has any significant dialogue (and no one else gets screen credit), and as such, it held my attention fairly well. The song "Come Saturday Morning," which I like, is played a little too often as background music for romantic frolics (and for some of the sad scenes later). The production seems fairly cheap--though set against a "fall to winter to spring" seasonal arc, virtually all the exteriors were obviously shot in the fall, and the colleges both seem more like small boarding schools. Interesting mostly as a snapshot of Minnelli just before she hit full bloom. [TCM]

Friday, April 25, 2008


This is the the third version I've seen of the famous cross-dressing farce. The plot, in a nutshell, has two Oxford students getting an older student to dress up as a visiting aunt in order to be a chaperone when their two young ladies visit. The "aunt" winds up romantically pursued by two older men, and things come to a head when the real aunt shows up. This is the most famous version, though it was hard to come by for years until Fox recently issued it on DVD. Jack Benny is Lord Babberley, the guy who dresses up, and he's fine with the physical humor; when dressed as the aunt, Benny moves a bit like Robert Preston did his his drag number "The Shady Dame from Seville" in VICTOR/VICTORIA. But his attempt at a British accent is pathetic (basically, he pronounces "can't" as "cawn't" and calls it a day), and he comes nowhere near pulling off a female voice--perhaps he was afraid to camp it up in an exaggerated fashion, but that would have been funnier than what he does here, which is speak in his normal register and make his voice crack periodically. James Ellison and Richard Haydn are OK as the young men (though Ellison has the same accent problem; Haydn doesn't because he's a genuine Brit), Kay Francis is fine as the real aunt, and Anne Baxter has a thankless role as one of the young women. However, the film is well worth watching for three supporting actors: Laird Cregar, best known for villainous roles (THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE), displays fine comic finesse as Haydn's father; the always wonderful Edmund Gwenn is excellent as the girls' guardian; Reginald Owen is great fun in the smaller role of an Oxford don who pops up to comic effect now and then. I liked the scenes in which Benny, dressed as the aunt, kisses the young ladies full on their mouths. Overall, I'd say Charlie Ruggles in the 1930 version is the best screen Aunt I've seen. The commentary track on this DVD is one of the most tedious I've run across. The commentator goes along at a nice clip, but spends almost all his time simply giving biographical details about everyone right down to the visual effects artist; mostly he simply rattles off their credits, as though he just sat down at IMDb moments before he recorded his track. [DVD]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


A variation on the Warner Brothers pilot-buddy films of the 30's. This stars William Gargan as famous pilot Ace Boreman who is treated to an NYC ticker-tape parade (strictly B-movie scale) for setting a flying record. Next on his plate is judging in an all-female flight derby from California to Cleveland; hoping to win that derby is Kay Francis, a woman who was taught to fly by her brother, an old friend of Gargan's who is now a cripple. She wants to win the cash prize to pay for an operation for him which her family doctor (Victor Jory, in a rare good-guy part) is certain will help him. Francis, without telling Gargan who she really is, sweet talks her way into a plane and pulls some showboating moves in the air, and an impressed Gargan loans her a plane to use in the derby. They also begin a flirtation, though she overhears him tell his pal Maxie Rosenbloom that his motto is, "Feed 'em, fly 'em, forget 'em!" Meanwhile, the woman Gargan assumed was his ex-wife (Sheila Bromley) returns with the news that their Mexican divorce wasn't legal, and she enters the derby, claiming Gargan's plane. He manages to get Francis a different plane, but at the halfway point in the race, a mechanic friend of Bromley's (Frank Faylen) tinkers with Francis' plane, putting her in mortal danger in the air. Now it's not just a matter of winning, but of surviving a gas leak and the loss of a landing wheel. After hogging most of the first half of the movie, Gargan becomes second fiddle to Francis and her adventures. At this point in their careers, he was still more or less on the way up, getting an Oscar nomination the very next year for They Knew What They Wanted, and she was on the way down, but she gives the more impressive performance, though the two don't have much romantic chemistry. Eve Arden is good as Francis' flying sidekick, as is Eddie Foy Jr. doing the same for Gargan. The flying scenes are mostly quite well done, and there was apparently some location shooting done at a real Cleveland air derby. At 63 minutes, it's just the right length for a breezy second feature. [TCM]

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Irene Dunne is a singer who marries a rich but weak and vapid lad (Phillips Holmes) against his father's wishes. When Dad (Lionel Atwill) finds out, he threatens to cut the boy off; Holmes, having no money or inner resources of his own, goes back home, leaving Dunne alone--and, unknown to him, pregnant. Atwill refuses to change his mind and Holmes kills himself. Dunne has her baby and takes some rather unsavory jobs to survive, but Atwill has the baby taken away from her. Twenty years later, her son (Douglas Walton), now a WWI solider, behaves like a cad and creates a scene at the French cafe that Dunne runs. She discovers his identity and, when he accidentally shoots the angry father of a girl he had dallied with, Dunne tries to take the blame (without telling him she's his mother). A fairly straightforward "mother love" melodrama, like STELLA DALLAS or THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET. It's apparently very much like the more well-known MADAME X, though I've never seen that film. Dunne is good, though she is aged a bit too much, looking much older than 45 or 50 in the last half. Also with Una Merkel and C. Henry Gordon. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


In 1797, during wartime, a young merchant sailor, Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), is taken off of his ship by the Royal Navy and impressed into service under Captain Vere (Peter Ustinov). Stamp is blond, handsome, and always smiling, though he does have a stammering problem. Soon he is a crew favorite (personality-wise; issues of lust or love or even close friendship are never touched upon), beloved by all except for the sadistic master-at-arms, Claggart (Robert Ryan), who actively enjoys the floggings he dishes out, sometimes, Stamp is told, for no reason at all. The men say that Ryan is an important "force for order," but they also believe that he finds "perfection" to be a disease. When Ryan refuses to let a sailor in obvious distress (Ronald Lewis) out of his turn up in the foretop, the sailor falls to his death and Stamp makes it clear that he blames Ryan for the man's death. In a well done night scene, Stamp tries to make friends with the master-at-arms, but Ryan believes that he is being artificially "charmed" by the lad and he goes to the captain with a blatantly false story implicating Stamp in an attempted mutiny. When confronted with Ryan's story, Stamp is struck dumb and the only way he can react is to punch Ryan in the head. Ryan falls, grins at Stamp, and dies. The officers on board vote to acquit Stamp, but Ustinov, though sympathetic to the boy's plight, feels they must let military law take its course, and the punishment for striking an officer, much less killing him, is death.

The Herman Melville story this is based on is a work, like Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," that always seemed to me to be full of homoerotic subtext waiting to be examined in English classes, but my teachers back in the 70's never went there. "Venice," they said, is about art, or aging, or death. "Billy," they said, is about good and evil, or the law, or Jesus Christ. Well, that may be, but I think both works can be also be fruitfully (no pun intended) examined as stories about thwarted male-male attraction. Ustinov, the director and co-screenwriter of this film, doesn't do much interpretation, settling for a realistic surface rendering of the narrative. If this version is about anything, it's about law vs. justice; even though the officers all believe that Stamp was telling the truth and that Ryan was a twisted bastard, they conclude, "We do not deal with justice but with the law," and the law says Stamp must die. Stamp is indeed lovely and angelic, and he received an Oscar nomination for this, his first movie role. Ustinov is excellent in a difficult role; Ryan has the dark glowering look for his part, and does a fine job in a chilling scene in which his body language makes it clear that he wants a flogging to continue at much greater length but cannot disobey his captain's orders. But he just never feels as evil or perverse as he should--and the hat he wears, a tall black one with a big brass buckle in the middle, kinda makes him look like an annoyed, if very tall, leprechaun. Melvyn Douglas, David McCallum, and John Neville (The Well Manicured Man on "X-Files") are also in the cast. Much of the film was shot aboard a real ship at sea which adds to the atmosphere, though this story really seems to call more for melodrama and symbolism than stark realism. [DVD]

Monday, April 14, 2008


This little-seen movie is known by film buffs primarily as an inspiration for the narrative structure of Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE; its "unstuck in time" chronology keeps things interesting, and the cinematography by James Wong Howe is always fine, but the movie has nowhere near the fully fleshed-out characters or thematic and emotional force of KANE, though both do seem to be stories of how a man becomes rich and powerful, then unmoored and miserable. We begin at the funeral of rich and powerful railroad magnate Spencer Tracy, but the narrative unfolds as a long flashback conversation between Ralph Morgan, Tracy's loyal friend and business partner, and Morgan's wife (Sara Padden) who seems not terribly unhappy that Tracy is dead. The anecdotes play out along two chronological levels: The first story level is of Tracy growing up from a backwoods boy to an illiterate railroad "track walker" to become an educated and ambitious engineer, a husband and father, and soon head of a railroad. This story keeps getting interrupted by a second one, which follows Tracy's fall from his peak after his company becomes a conglomerate. His son is kicked out of college and Tracy reluctantly gives him a junior bookkeeping position at the railroad. Tracy begins a long-term affair with Helen Vinson, the daughter of another railroad owner, and he has to deal with a nasty strike during which hundreds of workers are killed. The clincher comes in a superbly done scene in which Tracy discovers that Vinson has been having an affair with his son, and that her baby may well be the son's and not Tracy's.

At 75 minutes, this doesn't have the time to develop its characters or situations as well as it needs to. Tracy is quite believable as both the illiterate but happy bumpkin and the powerful but unhappy businessman. Silent movie star Colleen Moore is fine as the schoolteacher who inspires Tracy to better himself and who winds up marrying him, but Vinson outshines her as the scheming mistress. Morgan, never a favorite of mine, is fairly weak, but as his role is that of a passive observer, he doesn't hurt the film too much. The non-linear narrative structure is never confusing--if everyone looks young and poor, it's storyline 1, and if they look older and put-upon, it's storyline 2. Contemporary reviews of the film mention a device called "narratage," in which Morgan, the off-camera narrator, speaks the lines that the characters we see are supposed to be saying, but I only noticed this once, in a cute scene involving Tracy nervously proposing to Moore. Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay; in the hands of a more creative director, the movie might have been more effective, but William K. Howard directs in a rather journeyman fashion--though as I noted earlier, Howe's camerawork is often striking. [FMC]

Thursday, April 10, 2008


No, not the so-so magician movie from 2006, but a so-so tropical melodrama from the heyday of that genre (RED DUST, CHINA SEAS, KONGO) with a chunk of Devil’s Island drama tossed in. Melvyn Douglas is an officer in the French Army, stationed in Paris; we see him reprimand an officer for failure of duty back at a penal camp at Lao Bao in Vietnam. Then, on the eve of his wedding to Ann Harding, Douglas is assigned to the same camp. She keeps a stiff upper lip, delays the wedding, and decides not to accompany him, but when one year later his stay is extended indefinitely, she opts to go live with him. Her father (Ian MacLaren) warns her that her "prestige" as a white person is the only tool she will have to fight the dangers of the jungle (and, it's implied, the physical lure of the dusky races--this in an era when even the appearance of "miscegenation" was strictly against the Production Code). In Lao Bao, she finds Douglas has become a shambling, sweaty, drunken wreck--there’s a great shot of Douglas drinking and collapsing in the shadows just before she arrives. They get married in a native ceremony but Douglas' decline continues; Harding tries to go over Douglas' superiors heads in requesting a transfer, but it is denied, and the messenger of that news is an officer stationed in Saigon (Adolphe Menjou) who has always loved Harding. Harding tries some "tough love" and tells Douglas he needs to get some backbone and quit drinking, but it doesn't work and when Harding decides to leave with Menjou, things come to a head and the climax involves a murder, restless natives, and Douglas trying to regain control over his life and his career. What's most notable about this film isn't the plot (predictable) or the acting (OK), but the cinematography; director Tay Garnett's camera is restless, constantly on the prowl, climaxing in a great crane shot at the end. Clarence Muse has the small but crucial role of Douglas' servant. [TCM]

Monday, April 07, 2008


It's the height of the bootlegging 20's; Nick (Sam Waterston), approaching 30 and just making his way in the business of bond selling, is spending the summer on Long Island, in a small cottage on West Egg, across from the palatial home of the rich, mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), who throws parties which are well attended by the local high-class folks, even though most of them never even meet him. Nick frequently visits his rich cousin Daisy (Mia Farrow) who lives with her brutal, fascistic husband Tom (Bruce Dern) across the bay in East Egg. Nick discovers that Gatsby was snubbed by Daisy in the past because he was poor, and Gatsby has amassed a fortune in order to get a second chance with her. Gatsby seems truly interested in being friends with Nick, but he's not above using Nick to rekindle a relationship with Daisy. It is common knowledge that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle (Karen Black), the slatternly wife of poor schlemiel George (Scott Wilson) who runs a gas station in a desolate industrial area nicknamed "The Valley of Ashes," but when Tom suspects that Daisy is having a fling with Gatsby, tensions among the whole group, including tennis playing beauty Jordan (Lois Chiles) who is half-heartedly pursuing a fling with Nick, escalate. It ends badly for all concerned.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is my favorite novel of all time. For that reason, I have avoided watching this movie, which has gotten almost universally bad reviews, until now, when I was fairly certain that nothing could spoil any future enjoyment I might get from the novel. It is, in fact, not a particularly good movie, but it's not exactly a bad movie, either. Much of the book derives its power from its symbols, such as a sign with a giant pair of eyes gazing down over the Valley of Ashes like, in the words of George, "the eyes of God," the profusion of colored shirts in Gatsby's bedroom, and the green light at the end of Daisy's dock which figures prominently in the book's conclusion. The symbols are all here in the movie, but when they're made so literal, they don't work as well--actually, I rather liked the eyes sign, but most of the rest of the symbols just get in the way of the narrative. The performances are problematic, but I think the real problem is the screenplay, by Francis Ford Coppola, which adheres too slavishly to the novel. It gets almost all the major plot lines in (and the production design gets the rich 20's atmosphere right), but the elegiac tone about the impossibility of recapturing the past and the criticism of the American dream are both lacking here, and the characters are not fleshed out enough, leaving the actors at sea. I don't care much for Farrow, but I think she gives the part her best. At times, as in her very first scene, she almost gets it, but Daisy is a tough character to inhabit; she's supposed to be attractive enough to have held someone like Gatsby in thrall for years, but by the end (if not before) we know she's not worth all the trouble. Farrow makes her too easy to see through, too early on, so we never know what he saw in her. Redford is so very golden-boy handsome, but there is little chemistry between him and Farrow, and the character is not written terribly well.

The best performances come from the supporting players: Black, who wisely underplays for once, Wilson, who makes his cardboard character quite sympathetic (I almost felt worse about his fate than Gatsby's), and especially Waterston who does Nick so well despite the limited characterization provided. I'd love to see the 1949 Alan Ladd version, but that seems to have vanished into limbo. Oddly, the director of this film, Jack Clayton, also directed the film version of my second favorite book of all time, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," and also did a mediocre job. Maybe they should just never have been translated to the screen at all. The DVD is letterboxed, but there is a lot of awkward zooming in and out and around, which makes me wonder if the film is presented at its correct aspect ratio. I've also recently seen the 2000 A&E television version of GATSBY, and despite less star power and a smaller budget, it is in most ways superior to the Redford film, though still falling awfully short. Paul Rudd is excellent as Nick and Martin Donovan is a better Tom, though Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino are at sea as Gatsby and Daisy. [DVD]

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


At an art exhibit, a countess (Vera Zorina) shows off a stunning necklace which she says is a worthless copy of a valuable original. However, Fritz Feld, told by an expert that it's worth hundreds of thousands of francs, offers to buy it from her for a large sum, despite her continuing protestations that it's worth nothing. After the sale, Feld tries to sell it and finds that it is, indeed, worthless. It turns out that Zorina is a former ballerina turned con woman who has been working this particular con, using an actual valuable necklace and its copy, with her pals Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre. They go across France making a nice living bilking folks until Zorina falls in love with their latest mark, Richard Greene. She doesn't tell Greene about her past, they get married, and she tries to leave the racket, but Stroheim and Lorre keep trying to drag her back in. She pulls a nicely twisty con to get rid of them, which works briefly, but soon they're back to get revenge by robbing all the weekend guests at Greene's estate. Zorina comes clean with her husband, but how will they catch the burglars, who are on their way out of the country?

This is a little confection which feels like it wants to be a fluffy, harmless version of the Lubitsch pre-Code classic TROUBLE IN PARADISE with a hint of Dietrich's DESIRE tossed in. It starts out well enough, and the two con games we see in full (the first one, and the one that Zorina pulls on Stroheim and Lorre) are fun, but other parts of the film lag a bit. The biggest problems are a sloppy script and lackluster romantic leads. Stroheim and Lorre wind up stealing the show. Lorre's character is actually the most interesting in the film; he's a con man who seems to genuinely want to leave the business (and has a real affection for Zorina) but knows he's good at it and can't quite get away. Stroheim is not exactly known for comedy, but he displays a nice light touch here, all the more effective because he goes against type. Though there seems to be no particular degree of eroticism in the men's relationship, they are compared explicitly to a married couple (they're said to be together "for richer or poorer"). Worth seeing as a novelty. [FMC]