Saturday, May 30, 2009

THE PUBLIC DEFENDER (1931)

Behind that drab title is a fun little B-thriller, not about a lawyer, but about a vigilante who goes after the men responsible for the crash of a bank and the destruction of the bank president's good name. Richard Dix plays Pike Winslow (great name!), a rich young man who, under the name The Reckoner and with two associates (Boris Karloff and Paul Hurst), goes about righting wrongs in cases where the legal system can't, and leaving his calling card behind. When the above mentioned bank president is set up by his board members to the take the fall for the closing of their bank, Dix goes about getting evidence against the dastardly villains. There's a somewhat complicated love interest: the bank president's daughter, Shirley Grey, has been in love with the slightly older Dix since she was a child, though it takes him most of the running time of the movie to figure this out. The cops aren't sure what to make of the Reckoner as he goes about collecting evidence (not always legally) until one of the board members is found dead with a Reckoner card in the vicinity--of course, it wasn't Dix but someone trying to frame the Reckoner (and get rid of a board member who was ready to crack), so his vigilantism becomes even harder to pull off. Nevertheless, Dix prevails and the film climaxes with an exciting chase scene. The general situation of the Reckoner reminded me of the Scarlet Pimpernel (a playboy who secretly works for the underdog) and Doc Savage (a hero and his associates vs. murderous bad guys). I’m not usually impressed with Dix's sound work; even though he was only in his 40's during the first decade of the sound era, he always seems a bit lumpy and over the hill, but he does a fine job here. Karloff doesn't get a chance to do too much, but it's nice seeing him as a good guy. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN (1940)

Peter Lorre owns an island on which he operates a secret diamond mine; his workers are ex-cons and parolees to whom he promises good, rehabilitating work, but who become virtual slaves. G-man Robert Wilcox agrees to take on a "Mission: Impossible"-type case to catch Lorre, but as he’s getting briefed on the facts of the case by a fellow agent, the agent is killed and Wilcox is arrested and sent to prison, insisting he's innocent but refusing to mount a defense, obviously hoping to get inside Lorre's operation. Sure enough, Lorre, who was behind the killing, knows Wilcox is an agent and, when he comes up for parole, Lorre takes him to the island as a worker. Wilcox, told by a fellow slave that there's no escape until you die and "get paroled in a pine box," tries to get the prisoners on his side for a revolt, but the presence of Lorre's unhappy wife (Rochelle Hudson), who is also being held prisoner, complicates matters.

This Columbia B-thriller is a kind of cross between a Devil's Island penal colony melodrama and H.G. Wells' "Island of Dr. Moreau"--the title is a steal from the 1932 Island of Lost Souls, an early version of Moreau. The best thing about the movie is Lorre as the slimy sadist who enjoys seeing his men get whipped (and who also seems to get a sexual charge out of threatening to whip his wife). Wilcox is handsome and capable as the hero, with Hudson fine as the lovely, scared heroine. There are a handful of familiar supporting faces, best of whom is George E. Stone (Runt, the sidekick in the Boston Blackie movies) as the houseboy who has a pet monkey which comes to an unfortunate end via Lorre; Stone's desire for revenge plays a crucial role in the climax. If this had been a Warner Brothers B-movie, it would have been a bit glossier and better paced, but Lorre, Wilcox, and Hudson make it worth watching. [TCM]

Friday, May 22, 2009

BIG BROWN EYES (1936)

This undistinguished crime comedy features Cary Grant at a point in his career when he was established as a name but quite yet as a star. He was a headliner, but mostly in B-films like this one, though he would hit the A-list in the next two years, with TOPPER, THE AWFUL TRUTH and BRINGING UP BABY. Here, he plays a police detective who is working to solve the theft of some jewels from wealthy Marjorie Gateson. His girlfriend, cocky manicurist Joan Bennett, is jealous of his attentions to her, throws a fit at her salon, and is fired. Walter Pidgeon is an insurance investigator also working on the case who tries to buy Bennett's affections; he is also a crook who is connected to the theft (along with underlings Lloyd Nolan and Douglas Fowley). When things go wrong among the thieves, Nolan gets in a shootout and accidentally kills a baby in a carriage—a startling scene even now, seventy years on. Grant figures out that the killing and the theft are connected, and Bennett, who rather improbably snags a job as a reporter thanks to an editor friend, winds up helping Grant catch the crooks. There is a nifty trick Bennett plays in which she plants a story that one of the captured suspects (Fowley) has squealed; she has Grant free Fowley then scares him into thinking that his cohorts are coming after him, leading him to race back to the cops and give a confession. The low budget is obvious due to the numerous montages of close-ups of people delivering exposition. Grant is OK, but his heart wasn't in the mild material, a lame attempt at getting Paramount into "Thin Man" territory. Bennett is also OK, though she sounds like she's doing a Jean Harlow imitation. So-so stuff, not terrible but not required viewing. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

The latest edition of Earl Carroll's Vanities, a Ziegfeld Follies-type Broadway revue, is about to open. Stage manager Jack Oakie has his hands full getting all the acts on and off the stage in a timely fashion. His leading man (Carl Brisson) and lady (Kitty Carlisle) have just announced their engagement, triggering jealousy in chorus girl Gertrude Michael, who until recently had been sleeping with Brisson, who has hired a private eye to recover some things she had stolen from him, including evidence that Brisson's dresser (Jesse Ralph) is actually his mother, who is wanted for killing a man in Vienna many years ago. When it seems like someone is out to cause a nasty accident for Carlisle, the police are called in, but it's the private eye who winds up dead up in the rafters, dripping blood onto a naked showgirl at the end of a number. Oakie talks the cops into letting the show go on while they investigate. After another death and several racy musical numbers, the villain is uncovered.

This is notorious among pre-Code movies; released just months before the Production Code went into effect, it has naked women (strategically covering themselves with their hands), near-naked women (in skimpy outfits), a character who gets away with murder, and a song about the pleasures of "Sweet Marijuana." The songs are done like Busby Berkeley production numbers, but more realistically, actually fitting on a theater stage, and they're all fun. There's a number that features dancing girls using feather fans to portray ocean waves which occasionally disgorge a woman onto an island shore. Weirdest of all is "Rape of a Rhapsody" in which Liszt plays his Hungarian Rhapsody, then is forced to yield the stage to Duke Ellington and his band who play something called "Ebony Rhapsody"; the bit climaxes with a man coming on stage and gunning everyone down! Oakie, who says "Judas H. Priest!" every five minutes, is fine as the center of the whirlwind (the movie moves at a very fast clip, taking place almost in real time). Victor McLaglan is unmemorable as the cop who keeps one eye peeled to appreciate the underdressed chorus girls all around him. Gail Patrick and Donald Meek are among the supporting players. Good fun all around. Available on the Universal Pre-Code Hollywood boxed set. [DVD]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

THE CHEAT (1931/1915)

Harvey Stephens is a businessman on the verge of making a big deal that will make him rich, but until then, he has to warn his wife, Talullah Bankhead, about her reckless spending. Unfortunately, one night at a charity party, Bankhead overhears adventurer Irving Pichel talk about luck and takes that as a sign that she'll be lucky at the gambling tables, but she winds up losing $10,000. Pichel, just back from the Orient, takes Bankhead home to see his collection of dolls, representing former lovers, all of which are branded with his symbol of possession. He's a little scary but she seems titillated, though the evening ends with no hanky-panky; however, at another charity ball, Bankhead agrees to wear an elaborate Oriental dress loaned to her by Pichel. Soon, Bankhead, who has been entrusted with $10,000 of charity money, uses the cash on a sure-thing stock tip, hoping to make enough to pay her debt, but loses, so now she's out $20,000. She finally gives in to Pichel, agreeing to take money from him in exchange for sex, but when her husband's deal goes through, making them rich, she tries to pull herself out of Pichel's perverse web. When she won't have sex with him, he brands her on the breast; she shoots him, though doesn't kill him, and her husband tries to take the rap for her. But a scandalous event in the courtroom changes the outcome.

This pre-Code melodrama, which I saw as part of the Universal Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, is a remake of a silent film by Cecil B. DeMille which I caught on TCM just a couple weeks after seeing this version. The 1931 film is slow going, worth seeing mostly because of Bankhead. A legendary performer on the stage (and as a wit and raconteur), she only made a handful of movies--though not long before her death, she appeared as a villainess on the 60's Batman TV series. She's OK here, though I can’t help but think that Claudette Colbert or even the pre-Code Norma Shearer would have been better. Pichel is fine, appropriately oozing decadence throughout, though he suffers by comparison with the leading man in the DeMille film.

The silent film, from 1915, has the same plot line, with one important difference: the adventurer is a Burmese ivory merchant, played by Sessue Hayakawa, which adds what would have been, in 1915, a distinct frisson of forbidden miscegenation--and apparently in the first release, he was identified as Japanese, but because of protests, his character got a different name and nationality in a 1918 re-release, which is the version which exists today. This is a half-hour shorter than the sound film but it's also the better version. Hayakawa is an ardent companion of the wife (Fanny Ward) from the beginning, and he's a stronger figure than Pichel is. For a film that is almost 100 years old, it still plays well. There is some nice stuff done with darkness and light, especially in two scenes which involve shadows behind a paper screen. Some of the acting, especially by Ward, is full of the big gestures and eye-rolling histrionics that mar silent films for today's viewers, but Hayakawa is excellent. I'm glad to have seen both. [DVD/TCM]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

SEARCH FOR BEAUTY (1934)

Two con artists (Robert Armstrong and Gertrude Michael), fresh out of jail, start a new scam: they buy a washed-up physical fitness magazine and re-launch it as a basically a skin magazine, with near-naked pictures and racy stories. Along with a former partner in crime (James Gleason), they rope in two Olympic athletes (American Buster Crabbe and British Ida Lupino) to front the magazine. With a highly-publicized contest to find the healthiest men and women in the world, the magazine is a success. Crabbe figures out what’s going on and realizes he can't get out of his contract, so he and Lupino negotiate to get their hands on a moribund health farm that came as part of the magazine deal. They get the place in shape, get the contest winners to work there as health instructors, and the place is a hit. When the publishers arrive, intending to get some relaxation among the beautiful people, Crabbe and Lupino force them to participate fully in the exercise routines and wind up in full control of the farm.

This comedy is a pre-Code treat; even as the skin-peddlers are presented as the bad guys, the movie’s main attraction is the near-naked flesh, both male and female, of the athletes and contest winners, including a brief scene of full-behind nudity in the men's locker room. Apparently the studio, Paramount, actually did hold a contest to find the, um, healthy young folks featured in the farm sequences, then put them in form-fitting exercise outfits that show off plenty of leg and butt and crotch and nipple. Speaking of which, there is a very funny moment early on with Gertrude Michael ogling Crabbe's package through her binoculars. Crabbe, who won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics and went on to fame as Tarzan and Flash Gordon, is essentially playing a version of himself; he has an odd accent and seems a bit stiff, but does the wholesome but sly persona well. There's a stage show bit called "Symphony of Health" which is the movie's first excuse for showing off lots of flesh; the second excuse is the amusing climactic sequence in which the staff drag all the guests out of bed at the crack of dawn to exercise. One of the gems on the Universal "Pre-Code Hollywood Collection" boxed set. [DVD]

Monday, May 11, 2009

JEANNE EAGELS (1957)

This Hollywood biopic is about a popular stage actress of the 20's (played by Kim Novak) who was just beginning a career in sound films when she died at 35, due to years of alcohol and drug abuse. The film opens with Novak as a teenager, having entered a traveling carnival beauty contest thinking it's been rigged for her to win. When she loses, the carnival boss (Jeff Chandler) gives her a job and falls in love with her. They head to New York where he goes into business with his brother at Coney Island and she works her way up the acting ladder, getting befriended by acting teacher Agnes Moorehead. To secure a starring role in a production of "Rain," she tricks an alcoholic has-been actress (Virginia Grey) out of the part; when the play is a hit, Grey kills herself. Novak begins a dalliance with Charles Drake, a former Princeton golden-boy athlete. The two marry and she goes on tour with "Rain," but she develops a drinking problem and starts missing shows. Years pass and her various antics get her trouble with Actors' Equity. Her husband, also a drunk and upset over being called Mr. Eagels, leaves her. Chandler comes back into her life but she soon turns to drugs to get on stage, and in the grand Hollywood melodrama fashion, it's all downhill from there.

Novak isn't bad in the first part, but she overdoes the conniving bitch stuff, and soon it feels like she's doing a bad Norma Desmond imitation (in a patently artificial gruff voice, perhaps as a way to physicalize her years of drug abuse). I've always found Chandler a little too weird looking for a leading man, though he's just passable here. Drake is good, and Grey is even better. Gene Lockhart and Murray Hamilton have small roles. The script takes the usual liberties with Eagels' real story, collapsing some ten years into no time at all, and the production code of the time wouldn't let the filmmakers be more candid about the actress's drug use, which the viewer must more or less dope out for himself. Not one of Novak's finer moments, though it's interesting to see a 50's take on a 20's tragedy. [TCM]

Friday, May 08, 2009

CAPTAIN APPLEJACK (1931)

Ambrose Applejohn (John Halliday) lives in his family's 100-year-old seaside mansion with his young ward Poppy, his aging Aunt Agatha, and his butler Lush; he has decided to put the big house up for sale because he's bored and, hoping for adventure, wants to see the world, which upsets his aunt ("An Applejohn wanting to see things," she cries in disbelief). One stormy night, a mysterious woman named Valeska comes rushing in and, in an outrageously artificial Russian accent, claims she needs help hiding from a burly pursuer who is after her jewels. Soon, a vaudeville mystic named Zoroaster and his female companion arrive, claiming their car has died. By the time the pursuing Russian brute arrives, it's clear that no one is quite what they seem. Sure enough, the strangers are two rival groups of burglars who are after a rumored treasure hidden somewhere in the house, and Ambrose winds up getting a solid dose of adventure without leaving his estate.

This early sound film suffers from some static direction and stilted performances early on, but eventually becomes a rather fun romp, given that it all rather stagily takes place on a handful of sets. Based on a play, it reminded me of another early talkie play adaptation, Seven Keys to Baldpate, also about a somewhat befuddled man, a big dark house, and a bunch of odd intruders, though the two films have very different endings (in Baldpate, the whole thing is a put-on; here, there is real skullduggery afoot). Supporting actor Halliday has a rare lead role here and he's fine, coming off at times like a B-movie John Barrymore. Mary Brian as the ward is unexceptional, but Kay Strozzi (pictured with Halliday) as the fake Russian temptress is quite good (she only made one other movie before leaving films). There is no musical score; instead, we constantly hear the sounds of thunder, wind, and rain in the background. The final chase is bizarrely rendered in slightly faster-than-normal motion, and there is a very amusing dream sequence in which Halliday imagines himself as a pirate. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

HAPPY LAND (1943)

During WWII, in the small town of Heartsfield, Iowa, drug store owner Lew Marsh (Don Ameche, at right) gets a telegram telling him that his beloved son Rusty (Richard Crane) has been killed in action. Marsh is inconsolable, refusing to go to work, brooding at home, and even shutting his wife out of his grief until the ghost of his grandfather (Harry Carey) shows up and, a bit like Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Past, takes him on a long walk around town, making him relive his past. We see Marsh come home as a young man from service in WWI, marry, and raise Rusty into a fine young Boy Scout-type. Rusty falls in love, graduates from high school, and plans to go to a school of pharmacy to join his dad at the drug store, but the war intervenes. Back in the present, Marsh finally goes back to the store and, as he’s closing up, meets Tony (Henry Morgan), a sailor who was Rusty's best friend; he tells Marsh about Rusty's heroic death, and Marsh and his wife take him into their home for his 2-week leave.

This sentimental drama from Fox has a lot in common with MGM’s THE HUMAN COMEDY, which was released a few months earlier. Both are patriotic propaganda stories of how wonderful it is to live in small town America and how Americans should deal with the inevitable loss of their loved ones in the war. Both end the same way, with a friend of the dead soldier arriving in town as a symbolic new son. The biggest difference is that COMEDY is largely about a community and this film is about an individual family. Ameche is very good as both the older and younger Marsh, and Crane (pictured), best known as 50's TV spaceman hero Rocky Jones, looks and acts the all-American boy part to a tee. The women (Frances Dee as Marsh's wife and Cara Williams and Anne Rutherford as Rusty's love interests) don't fare as well, mostly because they're not given much to do, though I enjoyed seeing Mary Wickes in a small role as an employee at the drug store. Similarly Carey doesn't register strongly in his relatively small ghostly role. It's really Ameche's show all the way, and if you like him and don't fight the lump-in-the-throat sentimental scenes which occur fairly regularly, you'll enjoy this. [FMC]

Monday, May 04, 2009

BELLE STARR (1941)

Yet another Hollywood movie centered on a historical American figure about whom I knew nothing before (and, given the inevitable fictionalizing and sanitizing, about whom I still know almost nothing). In Missouri after the Civil War, Gene Tierney is a young Southern belle who still resents the Union, especially her former beau Dana Andrews who fought for the North as major in the army. Andrews' job now is to clear out the straggling Confederate bandits and "terrorists," one of whom is the notorious Sam Starr (Randolph Scott). At Tierney's family's mansion, while Andrews attends dinner, Scott shows up and he and Tierney hit it off. Andrews arrests Scott, but Scott's men turn the tables briefly. When Scott is injured, Tierney and her brother (Shepperd Strudwick) tend to him, and when Andrews shows up, he feels compelled to have his men burn their mansion down for giving aid to terrorists. Tierney and Scott escape to the hills and get married, and when she begins riding along on his group's exploits, she gets a reputation as a "bandit queen." Tierney, who thinks they're doing noble deeds by robbing the Northerners, is upset when the outlaw Cole Brothers join up. One of them shoots her brother and she leaves the gang but discovers a plan by Andrews and the nearby town to capture Scott and his men. She tries to intervene, but tragedy strikes.

The real problem with this misfire is that it wants to be GONE WITH THE WIND. Of course, it fails miserably. From the very first scenes, Tierney is set up as Scarlett O'Hara-lite. There are several scenes which specifically echo famous scenes in GWTW, including banter with a meddling but good-hearted mammy (Louise Beavers), the straggling return of a loved one from the war, and Tierney dodging carpetbaggers in the big city. Beavers even gets an emotional Hattie McDaniel moment near the end, but she's not quite up to it (and neither is the script). It's in color but it doesn't look half as good as GWTW--and some truly bad day-for-night work during a climactic scene doesn't help. Had the studio let the material find its own way, the film might have had a chance, though poor Tierney is terribly miscast, and she uses a dreadfully artificial Southern accent throughout. The men are all fine, especially Strudwick (under the name John Shepperd); two other bright spots are Elizabeth Patterson and Chill Wills as a hills-living couple who help out Scott's gang, but no one can make this film amount to much. The film is so bland, I wasn't even moved to look up the real Belle Starr on Wikipedia. [FMC]

Friday, May 01, 2009

SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927)

This silent romantic melodrama set in Paris before and during WWI is clich├ęd and occasionally over-the-top, but worth watching for the lead performances. Charles Farrell is a handsome, hearty sewer worker with dreams of becoming a street cleaner. He’s an atheist who says that God owes his him 10 francs for lighting candles in a church, but when a priest offers him a street cleaning job, he becomes a tentative believer. Janet Gaynor is a beautiful young woman who lives on the edge of poverty with her horrifyingly cruel sister, a thief and a hooker who gives Gaynor fierce whippings whenever she pleases. During a particularly brutal beating which spills out into the streets, Farrell saves Gaynor. When a cop wants to arrest Gaynor for being a homeless undesirable, Farrell pretends she's his wife, even taking her back to his seventh-floor garret to stay the night. (His philosophy is that, though he works in the sewers, he lives near the stars, and is always looking up.) Though their first night together is chaste, soon they're in love and they hold their own private wedding ceremony to cement their bond. When Farrell goes off to war, the two make a promise to commune spiritually every day at 11:00, the hour when they exchanged vows. Eventually Farrell is blinded on the battlefield, though Gaynor gets word that he has been killed in action, and a tearjerking climax is in store.

Gaynor and Farrell were Hollywood's top drawing couple for a few years, but I've never all that impressed by them in sound films (Change of Heart, Delicious). Here, however, I can see their appeal. Farrell's handsome and a bit luggish in that pleasant Hollywood way, and Gaynor (who won the very first Best Actress Oscar that year) is luminously beautiful and quiet believable as a waif with resources of toughness inside. She underacts a bit, which makes up for Farrell's occasional overacting. The scenes in and outside the rooftop apartment are lovely, but the kinky whipping scenes between Gaynor and her sister (Gladys Brockwell) are simply astonishing. Brockwell whips and whips, almost dancing herself into a frenzy, but watch for the even more surprising scene in the second half when Gaynor finally gains control and gives Brockwell a taste of her own medicine. This won't be the movie that will turn you into a silent movie fan, but if you already have a tolerance for them, this is worth seeing. [DVD]