Saturday, February 28, 2009

TRANSGRESSION (1931)

Paul Cavanagh is going to Bombay for a year on business, and is sure that his wife (Kay Francis) couldn't take "the rotten food, the natives," and the general lack of civilization, so he sends her off to Paris, despite the warnings of his snooty, meddling spinster sister who doesn’t think Francis can be trusted. Sure enough, while in Paris, Francis begins an affair with a Spanish Don (Ricardo Cortez, pictured)--we're told it's platonic, but I don't really buy that. At the end of the year, she wants to break things off, but Cavanagh arrives in Paris a little ahead of schedule and complains about how "sophisticated" she's become (wearing make-up and all) and gives her a week to say goodbye to her friends and join him back in London. She goes to Cortez's house in Spain, expecting there to be a farewell party, but he tricks her and she's alone with him on a stormy night. He pours on all his oily charm to get her to leave her husband; she ends up writing Cavanagh a letter to that effect, but just after it's mailed, Cortez's nemesis, a man whose teenage daughter was seduced and abandoned by Cortez years ago, arrives and shoots Cortez dead. Can Francis get to London and intercept the letter before Cavanagh or his sister read it? This pre-Code melodrama feels quite creaky now, though it may have played very well back then. It seems completely unbelievable that Francis and Cortez would have been flirting for a whole year without at least a little heavy canoodling. Though I like both actors, they don't have a lot of chemistry together. The twist of the murderous intruder is set up very briefly with an obscure reference to some homeland troubles during one of the Paris scenes, but it's still a rather outlandish plot device. Not one of Francis's better vehicles. [TCM]

Thursday, February 26, 2009

SPECIAL AGENT (1949)

"Railroads are fascinating to everybody!" says the overbearing narrator at the beginning of this B-crime film about a railroad agent (William Eythe) and his pursuit of a pair of killers. Eythe, a new recruit, is given his first assignment in a sleepy California town; he's friendly with everyone, including engineer Jake and his wife and kids, and is sweet on Laura Elliott, daughter of a crusty old engineer (known, of course, as Pops). During a routine trip, a train is stopped in a tunnel, the mail car robbed, and Pops and Jake are killed. For Eythe, it's personal and he becomes consumed by the hunt for the killers. One of the clues is a copy of "War & Peace" left behind at the scene, leading someone to comment, "Obviously we're not dealing with ordinary men." Well, the crooks, the Deveraux brothers, Paul (George Reeves) and Ed (Paul Valentine), are pretty ordinary; they've committed the robbery in order to raise money so their impoverished grandfather can buy back some farmland--the narrator helpfully tells us that the old man's ranch looked like "a once-beautiful woman grown old and slatternly." The trail grows cold, until a lab tech finds evidence that the crooks worked as loggers and ranch hands. The nerdy tech also draws remarkably detailed sketches of the suspects, though how he got those from the physical evidence, I have no idea. Anyway, Eythe gets back on the trail and after a tip from a couple of kids, a well-laid trap, and a couple of shootouts, the agents get their men.

This was decent B-movie fun, despite many liabilities. The acting is not very good: Eythe, only 30 but already in career (and looks) decline, seems to be sleepwalking through his part; Valentine gives an oddly mannered performance as the tough-guy brother; Elliott is OK, though she's not really given much screen time—years later, she was Farley Granger's slutty wife in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and, after changing her name to Kasey Rogers, was Larry Tate's wife on "Bewitched." Reeves is head and shoulders the best actor here. The narration, perhaps intended to give the film a documentary feel and to cut back on expenses by delivering lots of plot points in voiceover rather than showing them happening, is mostly obtrusive and laughable. The Alpha DVD print is just on the edge of acceptable; the night scenes, which include most of the action in the film, are too murky. The story works well, and a little more development of relationships (between Eythe and the dead men, between Eythe and Elliot, between the brothers) would have made things more interesting. Perhaps a better print of this Pine-Thomas B-film, once distributed by Paramount, will turn up someday. [DVD]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

PLAY GIRL (1941)

Kay Francis plays a woman of a certain age who has a reputation for making her living by trapping men in breach of promise suits; the film begins at Lake Placid with the father of her latest target warning her to stay from his son. She and her companion (Margaret Hamilton) head to Florida where the pickings are usually easier, but Francis is aging and it's harder for her bait to get some nibbles. Instead, she winds up taking a poor young thing (Mildred Coles) under her wing to show her the ropes of gold-digging. On the way to Chicago, the women have an encounter with handsome cattleman James Ellison, and Coles takes a particular shine to him, but Francis is sure that Coles can do better, and sets her up with businessman Nigel Bruce, rich but considerably older and stodgier. Coles goes about setting Bruce up for a fall and gets $50,000 out of him. Just as Francis gets Coles another target, Ellison re-enters the picture and Coles starts to date him until she discovers he's actually a millionaire; he proposes but she's afraid he'll think she just wants his money and she runs off. Francis makes a successful play for Ellison until Ellison's mother comes to his rescue. In a rushed ending, Francis backs off and gets Ellison and Coles back together, with the promise of snagging Ellison's uncle for herself.

This should have been a fizzy screwball comedy, but something is off in any number of departments: Francis is OK but seems too old to play gold digger, and not old enough to settle for less than love—it might have worked if she'd come off as either peppier or drabber. Coles is a forgettable love interest and has little chemistry with Ellison, who is otherwise fine as the romantic lead. The supporting cast is fairly strong: Bruce is amusing, and I quite enjoyed the unexpected moment when he makes fun of Francis's troubles enunciating her "R's" (though Francis also gets in a jab at Bruce's mannerisms); Hamilton is even better, miles away from the Wicked Witch, in full modern spinster mode. Though the part isn't exactly taxing, she's fun and I'm sorry she didn't more do more roles like this. Also with the handsome Kane Richmond and the always welcome Cecil Cunningham. The pace is a little slow and the look of the movie is rather low-budget. OK if not top-drawer romantic comedy. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939 (1939)

On paper, this sounds quite odd: a movie with Joan Crawford and James Stewart as a show biz ice-skating couple which culminates in a 15 minute Technicolor ice follies sequence. Unfortunately, it's really a rather dull affair, one in a long line of dreary movies of the classic era in which a fragile male can't take his wife's (or girlfriend's) success, causing the breakup of their relationship until he proves himself to be the better breadwinner. Stewart, Crawford, and Lew Ayers are an ice-skating act, with Crawford singing, but they're fired because the boss thinks that skating and singing don't mix. Crawford and Stewart marry, and Ayers, feeling like a fifth wheel, leaves the act. Crawford finagles her way into the office of studio boss Lewis Stone and gets a contract, a new name, a glamorous image, and a breakout movie role, all in about five minutes. Stewart, upset at her success, leaves her to become a producer of ice shows. Over time, they all run into each other again, Ayers becoming a producing partner with Stewart, and eventually Crawford quits the movies to be with her man. One problem here is that Stewart and Ayers (pictured in their simply charming ice-skating outfits) have more chemistry together that Stewart and Crawford. Another problem is the predictability of the stupid male-pride plot; as soon as Crawford leaves the studio boss's office, you know she'll have to give up her career in the end. Lionel Stander has a small role as an agent. The various musical bits are OK, but unless you're an ice follies freak, there's no reason to sit though this. [TCM]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

THE CLOCK (1945)

For Valentine's Day, I thought I'd revisit a romantic classic I'd seen only once before, many years ago. In my memory, THE CLOCK was a sweet, whimsical, comic romance about two lonely people who meet cute, share a whirlwind big-city weekend during which they fall in love, then go through some amusing shenanigans trying to get married before he has to go back to war. Sadly, like many things about past romances, my rose-colored memories of this movie proved to be a bit faulty. Robert Walker is a young and innocent farm boy turned solider who is in New York City on a 2-day leave. Killing time among the crowds at Penn Station, he accidentally trips young working girl Judy Garland, who loses the heel of her shoe. They chat each other up and Garland, realizing how lonely Walker is, agrees to spend the day sightseeing with him. The needy Walker practically begs her to meet him for dinner that evening, even though she has a date with her boyfriend; at the last minute, she breaks the date and meets the soldier. Late that night, strolling the streets because they've missed her last bus, the two wind up accompanying a friendly milkman on his route, even finishing his deliveries for him when he's injured by a belligerent drunk. They decide rather impulsively to get married (the wartime context helps explain the rush), and spend the next day in a sad little comedy of errors trying to get through all the red tape before he has to ship out the next morning.

Though the plot is a bit clichĂ©, this film does feel surprisingly modern at times, primarily in its attempt at fleshing out the small-scale romance with some quirky supporting characters and situations. The middle of the film, the nighttime milk run sequence, is the high point, with the always welcome James Gleason (who would play a similar role as the sweet-natured taxi driver in THE BISHOP’S WIFE) adding some much needed humor and whimsy to what is, despite its romantic-comedy framework, not a very funny movie. Early in the film, Ruth Brady and Marshall Thompson provide some amusement as Garland's more worldly roommate, who warns her away from fooling around with servicemen, and her cute but passive boyfriend. The last half-hour, in which they are accidentally parted, meet again (at Penn Station), and desperately try to get married, is an almost total downer. One problem is that neither of their characters is fully developed: Walker, though charming, remains a stereotype of a rural American lad (one remove from being a hick); Garland gets even less background--I think the filmmakers rely on us knowing Judy Garland's movie persona (mostly at the time as Andy Hardy's gal pal) rather than giving her much of a backstory, or even a personality. Though primarily filmed on Hollywood sets, the city does come to life as almost a third central character; the detailed Penn Station set is particularly impressive. When I first saw this back in the mid-90's, I was charmed, but now I find it a strangely unengaging affair which, at only 90 minutes, feels too long. Ah, the folly of looking back... [TCM]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

THERE'S ALWAYS A WOMAN (1938)

A mild screwball comedy in the Thin Man vein; not bad considering it's missing the Thin Man's best assets, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Here, Melvyn Douglas is a DA's assistant who has quit his job to start his own detective agency, though as the film begins, he is in the process of throwing out his secretary (Rita Hayworth with about a line and a half of dialogue) and giving up the failing business. His wife, Joan Blondell, decides to make a go of it herself (behind his back) when Mary Astor, a high society wife, comes in with a case: she wants a family friend followed because she may be carrying on with Astor's husband despite having her own fiancĂ©. Blondell (accompanied her clueless husband) goes to the Skyline Club that night to observe the group. After some slapstick shenanigans at the club, which involve club owner and notorious gambler Jerome Cowan, Astor’s husband winds up dead, Douglas finds out what his wife is up to, and the two spend the rest of the film working with and against each other trying to find the villain. A few more tangled relationships (and one more corpse) come to light before everything is cleared up. Blondell (pictured above) is better than her material here, and pretty much is the main reason for watching, though oddly she did not appear in next year's sequel, THERE'S THAT WOMAN AGAIN. In addition to the nightclub scene, another highlight of the film is the police grilling of Blondell, who stands up to hours of good cop/bad cop posturing, bright lights in the face, and a deliberately annoying squeak in a chair better than the police do. Douglas is his usual bland self, not bad but not memorable; Astor, a couple of years before she would revive her career with MALTESE FALCON, has another thankless society wife role. The solution to the mystery, as in the Thin Man films, is easy to guess and relatively unimportant, so how much you will enjoy this depends on your tolerance for B-level screwball battle-of-the-sexes humor. Virginia Bruce took Blondell's role in the sequel and, though I usually like her, I find it hard to believe that she could have topped Blondell. [TCM]

Sunday, February 08, 2009

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (1934)

A version of the much-adapted adventure story by Dumas; far too much plot has been crammed into a two-hour running time, but everything moves along quickly. In 1815, Edmund Dantes (Robert Donat) is a young sailor who innocently winds up in the middle of a plot to bring the exiled Napoleon back to France from Elba. Villefort (Louis Calhern) sends Dantes off to lifetime imprisonment without a trial, covering up for his own father who was the real villain. In the island prison of Chateau d'If, Dantes wastes away for eight years until he is befriended by the Abbe Faria (O.P. Heggie) who has been slowly but steadily digging an escape route to the sea. After eight more years of work, Dantes finally manages to get off the island; the Abbe dies first, but leaves Dantes instruction for finding a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. With this money, Dantes spends a few more years plotting an elaborate revenge against Villefort and his collaborators, the traitorous sailor Danglars (Raymond Walburn) and the aristocrat Mondego (Sidney Blackmer), who has since married Dantes' former sweetheart (Elissa Landi). There is a rather startling suicide scene which I'm surprised got past the newly-enforced Production Code, a swordfight, a duel, and a well-staged climax in a courtroom.

I've never read the book--and at this stage in my life, I'm not likely to--but most critics say this is a solid adaptation, though it leaves out major plotlines. As it is, plot points in the last half go whizzing by too quickly, but the story never becomes hard to follow. I'm not a big fan of Donat but his placid demeanor works here, giving his moments of flash more impact. Landi is given little to do, but the rest of the cast is excellent, not just the three villains but also Heggie as the wise and almost ethereral Abbe, Georgia Caine as Landi's mother, and Luis Alberni and Clarence Muse as Donat's assistants in revenge. The story's reputation as a "swashbuckler" doesn’t quite seem deserved, as there is very little swordsmanship on display, but once we get past the exposition of the opening, which have to do with the French politics of the day, the movie moves along quite nicely and never stops. This film has apparently been mostly seen lately in a chopped-down and colorized 90-minute version, but the complete black-and-white 113-minute film has aired on Turner Classic. The print is not in perfect shape, but it's worth catching. [TCM]

Thursday, February 05, 2009

THE GIRL MOST LIKELY (1957)

My favorite movie eras are the 30's, 40's, and 60's. This movie is a perfect example of why I tend to shy away from 50's films (too much emphasis on bright color surfaces, too much artificiality, not enough risk-taking, and mediocre acting, with good actors often placed in roles that don't suit them) and yet I continue to sample them as I sometimes find subversive pleasures which were probably not part of the filmmakers' master plan. This is a musical remake of a 40's romantic comedy called TOM, DICK AND HARRY starring Ginger Rogers (which I have not seen). Jane Powell is a dreamy young working girl who still lives with her parents, loves romantic movies, and yearns for the good life with a rich husband—her first song, sung in her bedroom, reminds me a bit of Ann-Margret's "How Lovely to Be a Woman" in BYE BYE BIRDIE. Her unambitious, stable, steady, stick-in-the-mud boyfriend is realtor Tommy Noonan; at a nighttime beach party, he sets up lounge chairs for the two of them amongst the teeming masses of couples on the sand who are making out like crazy. She rather passively accepts his proposal of marriage, but the next day, on a crazy impulse, she jumps into the water off a ferry boat, hoping to be "saved" by the owner of a nearby yacht. Instead, it's boat repairman Cliff Robertson who picks her up. He's handsome, hunky, and down to earth, and they hit it off well, but the problem is that money is not his main concern in life. Still, she becomes engaged to him without mentioning Noonan. Later, she manages to meet the real yacht owner (Keith Andes) who seems to be the answer to her dreams, and gets engaged to him. Naturally, the three find out about each other and soon she has to choose the one most likely to make her happy.

The plot has promise, as does the gimmick that we see her whimsical (and musical) imaginings of what life would be like with each one. The production numbers are well executed with choreography by Gower Champion, but the songs themselves, despite some clever lyrics, are unmemorable. The pacing is absolutely leaden in the first half, though things do pick up a bit later. Powell is a problem: she's pretty and peppy, and sings and dances fine, but she was almost 30 and looks it, and the character seems like she should be quite a bit younger. Kaye Ballard is fun as her best friend, and Frank Cady (Sam Drucker on "Green Acres") and Una Merkel play Powell's parents. A cute dancer named Kelly Brown plays Ballard's boyfriend (in real life, Brown was the father of dancer Leslie Browne who was nominated for an Oscar for THE TURNING POINT). The movie's saving grace is how darn gay it seems. Noonan, passive if not quite an obvious sissy, exclaims, when Powell says yes to his proposal, "You've made me the happiest girl in the world!" One number (I think it's called "Balboa") is full of shirtless men in short swim trunks, showing lots more skin than the women do. A Mexican-themed dance features Andes and Brown acting a tad swishy, and when Robertson goes to Noonan's place of work to check out his competition, the scene plays out like a not-so-subtle gay pick-up. Without these little delights, I'm not sure I would have stayed with the film until the end. [TCM]