Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A charming romantic comedy which teeters pleasingly on the screwball tip. Charles Laughton is a rich old man who is, according to his doctor, on his deathbed. When Laughton's son (Robert Cummings) comes to see him, he says he's brought a fiancée back with him from his travels. The sickly old man begs to meet the fiancée before he dies, but when Cummings goes to the hotel, she's out shopping, so with perfect screwball logic, Cummings gives a hat check girl (Deanna Durbin) $50 to pose as the fiancée for an hour or so. Laughton is charmed by Durbin and surprises everyone by rallying the next day. Of course, when Cummings wants to bring the real fiancée (Margaret Tallichet, a Jane Russell lookalike) home, the doctor, also using screwball logic, warns that the shock might kill the old man, so Cummings gets Durbin to continue the charade. Durbin, a girl from Ohio who has been perusing a singing career with little success, finds out that the family has musical connections, so she agrees to the plan hoping to get an audition out of the whole thing. Tallichet is understandably upset, as is her nasty mother (Catherine Doucet), and just as Cummings decides to tell his dad the truth, Laughton finds out on his own and plots to keep his son and Durbin together.

This movie is grand fun, but there are some weaknesses. Like most mistaken identity comedies, rules of reason and logic must be ignored or else everything would get fixed in 10 minutes. The plot convolutions here are fairly weak, and Durbin and Cummings not only have very little chemistry, but they don't even have much screen time together. The character of the fiancée is given short shrift, so we have no reason to root against he--she seems like a fine person except for her nasty mother. Durbin herself is a bit of a weak link; she just doesn't have the spark that Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne would have given the character. But almost everything else about the movie works well. Laughton is perfect, holding down his temptation to play to the balcony, and his scenes with Durbin come off especially well. Cummings proves to be an adept comic actor, even if his character is ignored for much of the last half of the movie. There is a solid supporting cast; Doucet makes a good bitch, Walter Catlett, Guy Kibbee, and Charles Coleman provide solid support, and there's a fun bit with Irving Bacon and Gus Schilling as two men waiting patiently to take a death mask of Laughton as soon as he expires. The line which had me in stitches occurs when Tallichet calls while Durbin is present; the butler says, "Your fiancée is on the phone," and Cummings replies, "Tell Mr. Fiancée I'll call him back!" [DVD]

Sunday, July 26, 2009

FLESH (1968)

(aka ANDY WARHOL’S FLESH) One of the few Andy Warhol films which actually had a wide commercial release and met with some financial success, though like several others with his name attached, it was primarily the work of writer and director Paul Morrissey. The movie partakes of the Warhol aesthetic of long, seemingly improvised takes of slice-of-life events in the lives of hustlers, addicts, and other denizens of New York City's underclass of the 60's. Joe Dallesandro plays a variation on his usual role in a Warhol film, the hunky, bisexual (mostly straight but occasionally gay-for-pay), perpetually broke hustler who seems to barely be able to get through a day but is good looking enough (and charming in a drug-hazy kind of way) to have many admirers. The narrative, such as it is, follows a day in the life of Joe: he wakes up naked and engages in some half-hearted groping and grinding with his fully-dressed bisexual wife (Geraldine Smith) for a while. She asks him for $200 to give to her girlfriend (Patti D'Arbanville)for an abortion, so he spends the rest of the day hustling for the money. First he tricks with a young man in a grungy hotel room. Next, an old man, claiming an academic interest in classical beauty, pays him to strip naked and strike a number of Greek statue poses. Then he visits a female friend (Geri Miller) and two drag queen friends (Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis); Miller gives him a blowjob while telling about being raped, and the two guys watch while they laughingly read articles out loud from an old movie magazine--I loved that Ann Sheridan gets a shout-out. Later on the streets, he gives a young pimply hustler hopeful some advice; that evening, he lolls around in bed with an older gym buddy, a Korean War vet with visible scars who draws Joe out with some serious discussion about sexual identity before getting around to paying him for sex. Finally, Joe drags his tired ass home and just wants to go to sleep, but keeps getting pushed to the edge of the bed by his wife and her lover.

Each episode has obviously improvised dialogue (with Joe the least able improviser) and goes on too long, but Dallesandro is a beautiful, if passive and inarticulate, object of desire, seen naked or shirtless for a good chunk of the film's running time--Morrissey clearly found him irresistible, as does the camera. All the characters want something from Joe, mostly his flesh, and he wanders around rather naively trying to use his body as leverage to get cash. The biggest joke of this mostly humorless film is that Joe, despite his face and body, doesn't seem very good at hustling, though I admit I have no personal standards by which I can judge. (And speaking of humor, you can see the roots of John Waters' films here, though he would take things in a deliberately campy direction, away from Morrissey’s urban realism.) The most interesting episode is the one with the vet (Louis Waldon), as both of them try, with varying degrees of energy, to claim that they're really straight even though Waldon clearly is besotted with Joe, and Joe seems to have more affection for Waldon then for his own wife. Though the movie stops just short of being hard-core porn, some of the scenes are quite sexy, especially the morning frottage with Dallesandro and Smith. A period piece, to be sure, and not to everyone's taste, but if you want to see just one Warhol film, this is the one to catch. [DVD]

Friday, July 24, 2009


As a fan of obscure and mildly off-the-wall B-movies, I have to recommend this one to those similarly inclined, though others will probably be bored by this doggy whodunit. Yes, it’s a kind of mystery involving a dog accused of murder. Unfortunately, the mystery part of the plot is handled lazily, with little suspense and a dopey deus ex machina ending, but the rest of the story, which takes so many odd twists and turns that it feels written by committee, does keep one on one's toes. We first see James Ellison, (pictured; one of my favorite B-leading men), riding the rails, looking like a hobo; when he gets off the train one night in a small Midwestern town, he makes his way to a house, enters through a front window, and when confronted by the tenant, a woman (Helen Wood) with a gun, claims to be the owner of the house. Indeed, it turns out that Ellison is not a homeless bum, but a well-regarded citizen (and former lawyer) who left town a few years ago to travel the world after his marriage fizzled. His wife was a member of the ritzy Mabrey family, and her snooty father and brother always felt that Ellison was a "bad blood" mongrel, not worthy of association with their family. While Ellison is stuck in jail overnight before he can prove his identity, he bonds with a German Shepherd mutt (Ace the Wonder Dog) that the Mabreys have decided is too much of a mongrel to keep around their kennels (the old man’s hobby is showing dogs). The sheriff has orders to kill the dog, which, having been trained to do things like guard, trail, and attack, does have a vicious side, but Ellison adopts it, even after it mauls a mean drunk on the streets. Ellison and Wood become interested in each other, but his obsession with completing the dog's training and beating the Mabreys at the next dog show takes a toll on their relationship, with Ellison becoming a reclusive drinker.

After a sappy Christmas reunion with his ex-wife makes him feel more friendly toward the family, things seem to be looking up for Ellison, but next summer, the mean drunk is killed, his throat torn out by an animal, and Ace is accused of murder. The last part of the film involves the dog's trial (in a courtroom!), a kidnapping, a chase, some gunplay, and a happy ending for Ellison, Wood, and Ace. The way in which Ace is let off the hook shows signs of sloppy plotting, but the finale is exciting. The handsome Ellison is fine, as is the dog; the other performers are colorless, though Robert Kent shows some promise in his few scenes as the sneering rich brother-in-law. What makes the film interesting and problematic at the same time is the sheer number of plot threads and characters which are presented (Ellison as a drifter, the mean drunk, the ex-wife, the Christmas repentance, the dog show) but dropped before they reach fruition. Both the Christmas scene and the dog show are set up nicely, but seem to end before they've really begun. Still, for B-movie aficionados, this is worth viewing. Good old Ace, though no Rin Tin Tin, had a decent career, appearing in 13 movies between 1938 and 1946. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


A corrupt policeman kills himself, leaving behind a letter incriminating wealthy Alexander Scourby as a major crime boss. The cop's widow (Jeanette Nolan) keeps the letter as insurance; as long as she's alive and taken care of by Scourby, the info is safe, but if she dies, the DA gets the letter. Good cop Glenn Ford thinks the circumstances of the suicide are fishy and starts getting nosy with Scourby's thugs, including sadistic henchman Lee Marvin. When a car bomb meant for him instead kills his wife, the case becomes personal; the police department disowns him and Ford becomes a kind of early Dirty Harry vigilante figure, getting some help from a couple other good cops and from Marvin's abused mistress, Gloria Grahame (pictured, with Marvin).

This Fritz Lang movie, often a little misleadingly labeled a film noir, is a fairly brutal example of the crime film genre, not just with the behavior of Marvin's character, but also that of Ford, who beats up Scourby's bodyguard pretty thoroughly and physically threatens women when it suits his needs. There's a moment when Ford is giving a thug an ass-whooping when I fully expected him to say something like, "Do ya feel lucky, punk?" The scene that made this movie famous has Marvin throwing a pot of hot coffee in Grahame's face, scarring her for life. While the scene is effective, the better scene is later when she returns the favor. Ford, who I usually find to be a rather wooden actor, is good here, as are Scourby and Nolan, but best of all is the slurry-talking Grahame as a world-weary tramp who seems to know that she's destined for a bad end, one way or another. Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's sister, plays Ford's wife, and a blond Carolyn Jones has a bit part. Not particularly noirish in style, but worth a view for fans of the genre, or for fans of hard-boiled cop films. [TCM]

Saturday, July 18, 2009


This decent little thriller with occasional noir touches starts out like a knock-off of REAR WINDOW, except that this film was actually released several months before the much better Hitchcock film. The effective opening sequence is set on a wild, blustery night; when design artist Barbara Stanwyck wakes up to close her windows, she sees, in the apartment house across the street, George Sanders strangling a woman to death. She calls the police, but Sanders is too quick, having dragged the body to the vacant apartment next door, and the cops (Gary Merrill and Jesse White) have to apologize to Sanders for bothering him. The next morning, Stanwyck sees Sanders cart a large trunk (with what she assumes is the dead body inside) into his car and she sets out to find solid evidence against him. Sanders, an author with, shall we say, Nietzschean tendencies, starts gaslighting Stanwyck, making her think she's going insane; she does eventually get a bit hysterical (in what seems like a dry run to play the matriarch on Big Valley several years later) and winds up spending some time in a psych ward before she finally turns the tables on Sanders, who ends up being a full-fledged neo-Nazi.

Despite the presence of Stanwyck and Sanders, this looks and feels like a B-movie or a TV episode, churned out in a couple of weeks. There are plot loopholes and cheap looking sets, though the opening windy night sequence is carried out nicely, and is the closest the film gets to any real noir feeling. Sanders is fine as usual, though Stanwyck feels a bit restrained until her mad scenes. Merrill, who eventually falls for Stanwyck as he starts believing her story, is a zero. White, his sidekick, gets to give an amusing "Dragnet" reference. It's not great, but it's not a waste of time, either, especially for fans of damsel-in-distress thrillers. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The manager of the Hollywood Escort Service is a fellow named Breezy, but the real owners, in secret, are sleazy businessman Wheeler Oakman and his lady friend Betty Compson who makes enough money to send her daughter (Margaret Marquis) away to good schools. Compson is shocked to find out that Marquis is coming for a visit, and she’s even more shocked to discover that her daughter's boyfriend (Robert Kellard, pictured) is working undercover for the DA on an escort service crackdown. Compson keeps her career a secret, but soon Kellard is getting to close to the truth--he applies to work as a male escort and, under a different name, arranges for an escort girl to visit him in his hotel room. Oakman, onto Kellard's scheme, gets Kellard to believe that his girlfriend is one of his escort girls, leading to a lover’s spat, fisticuffs between the two men, and eventually two deaths, one by shooting and one by a plunge out of a window. This poverty-row exploitation film could have been a prostitution-ring REEFER MADNESS, but it's handled too seriously to be campy fun. For a low-budget film, it’s surprisingly well shot and acted; Compson was a Oscar-nominated star of silent films, Oakman had a solid career as a B-movie bad guy, and the beefy, handsome Kellard was the hero of the DRUMS OF FU MANCHU serial. However, the writing is slack and the characters underdeveloped. Especially bizarre is a scene in which Marquis gets drunk and says she’s a bad girl, even though she isn't; maybe a "biology is destiny" theme was intended here but it's very murky. In the middle of the movie is an explicit strip-tease scene that might well get an R rating today. The print shown on Turner Classic's Underground was in terrible shape, with missing dialogue and jump cuts galore. [TCM]

Saturday, July 11, 2009


A gem of folkloric fantasy from the silent Swedish cinema. It’s subtitled "A Winter Ballad in Five Acts," and indeed there are title cards separating the action into acts (which adds to the Shakespearian feel of the work). The story takes place in 16th century Sweden, during a particularly bitter winter. Three Scottish mercenaries, under arrest for aiding an uprising, escape from prison, disguise themselves as itinerant tanners, and head for the border to catch a ship home. Along the way, worn out by the powerful winds and snow, they break into the house of fisherman Torarin while he's out, and eat and drink themselves into a stupor. Tossed out of the house and still drunk, they sharpen their knives and go off for some pillaging. At the same time, there is a party in progress at the grand estate of Sir Arne, who has a fortune in silver coins, supposed to have been looted from monasteries and rumored to be cursed. At the height of merrymaking, Arne's wife has a ghostly vision of three men sharpening knives, and she thinks it's a sign of evil to come. Sure enough, the three eventually arrive at Sir Arne's and they proceed to steal the treasure, slaughter the family, and set the whole place on fire. Only the adopted daughter Elsalill survives. Taken in by Torarin and his wife, she is plagued by nightmarish images of the particularly cruel murder of her foster-sister Berghild, killed with a knife to the heart by one of the three, Sir Archie. She curses the men and hopes to rip their hearts from their chests. Unfortunately, when she meets the three, cleaned up and respectable looking, she doesn't recognize them and she falls in love with Archie, and he with her. The three men join a boatload of travelers heading back to Scotland but the ship is icebound and it may be days before they can get out. The skipper tells a tale of a thief on board an icebound ship; once he was driven off the ship, the ice broke up and the weather brightened. (Foreshadowing?) Meantime, the ghost of Berghild leads Elsahil to discover the truth about Archie, and a tragic climax follows.

The snowy landscapes give the film a cold, bleak look, and the supernatural elements of dreams, omens, and otherworldly spirits are worked into the weave of the film's world quite well. For the most part, the acting is not of the exaggerated style that we associate with silent films, and the look of the movie, with its moving camera and location shooting, is striking, especially a famous scene near the end of a funeral procession across the ice. Directed by Mauritz Stiller, best known now as the discoverer of Greta Garbo. The modern score on the Kino DVD is fine, and includes some nifty sound effects, such as wind, fire, and knife-sharpening. If you're a fantasy fan, check this one out, and don’t let the silent Swedish stuff keep you away. [DVD]

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


In a story drawn from real life, this film, based on a play by Terence Rattigan, centers on a court case involving British teenager Ronnie Winslow, who is expelled from military school for stealing five shillings from a classmate and then claiming he didn't do it. His father (Cedric Hardwicke) believes his son when he says he's innocent, so Hardwicke, who has recently retired due to ill health, risks his entire estate by insisting on taking the case to court. He hires a rather aloof lawyer (Robert Donat) who seems not to get personally involved, but who fights hard, first to get the case heard at all (at the time, there was no precedent for a suit against the government), and then in the courtroom. The cost of the proceedings affects the entire family: the older son has to leave Oxford; the daughter, no longer possessing a desirable dowry, loses her suitor; and there may not even be enough money to keep the family maid. On the surface, this is an average courtroom drama (though only a handful of scenes take place in court), though it's most interesting on the level of character, showing how the members of this relatively ordinary family actually do rise to the occasion and come through for each other. Donat's part is the trickiest, as he has to seem brusque and unflappable, but still genuinely concerned for the family (and for his reputation). He's good, though I couldn't help but compare this film to the recent remake by David Mamet in which Jeremy Northam is even better. Hardwicke is fine, and very good in support are Basil Radford (pictured with Donat) as an older lawyer who carries a bit of a flame for the daughter, Kathleen Harrison as the maid, and Jack Watling as the older son who is constantly pissing off his old man with his modern ways. Margaret Leighton as the daughter and Neil North as Ronnie are on the bland side, but suffice. [TCM]

Saturday, July 04, 2009


This is the first in a series of over 50 B-westerns made by Columbia with Charles Starrett as the title character, a cowboy Robin Hood-figure, a bit like the Lone Ranger, who wears a scarf over his face to hide his identity. Here, Bill Lowry (Starrett) comes home to the family ranch where trouble is brewing. His father (Frank LaRue), a landowner, is caught in the middle of a conflict between homesteaders trying to build on land the government has given them and a group of cattlemen who resent the newcomers and are trying to drive them away as the deadline for making improvements looms. LaRue has offered help to the struggling homesteaders, called "nesters" by the ranchers, and is shot in the back and killed for his troubles. A young woman whose family's house was burned down (Luana Walters) wishes that the fabled Durango Kid would ride by and help out; as it happens, Starrett is the Kid, and sure enough, he arrives and, with some help from his father's ranch hands (played by the singing Sons of the Pioneers), hunts down the baddies and helps Walters' family get money to rebuild. I watched this because I liked Starrett as Myrna Loy's object of torture in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU; I didn't like him quite as much here (a little wooden and less handsome than he was eight years earlier). For its genre, however, the movie works well, with good plotting, a brisk one-hour running time, and four songs from the Sons of the Pioneers who also provide a little comic relief. [TCM]

Thursday, July 02, 2009


I know my reviews here tend to run on at length sometimes, well, all the time. That's because way back in 2001, this blog began as a place to post my handwritten journal entries with detailed summaries and critiques, intended to help me remember the movies I'd seen so I wouldn't waste time re-watching films I'd forgotten I'd seen. Every so often, I'm tempted to write some very short reviews for this blog, one sentence for a summary and two for opinion. This film would be perfect for such a review, which might go something like this: "An underappreciated bank clerk and husband (Edward G. Robinson) somehow winds up inducted in the Army during WWII and becomes an unlikely hero. A drab, listless, and predictable propaganda war comedy which was made too late in the game to be effective. Skip this one."

But that wouldn't tell you exactly how bored out of my skull I was by this movie. Everyone from the director to Robinson seems just as bored as no one is working with any energy or commitment. Robinson and Ruth Warrick (as his shrewish wife) sleepwalk through their roles, and the supporting cast is made up of unmemorable minor league players with the exception of Robert Armstrong, whose big moment in the sun was as the movie producer in KING KONG. The one actor who gives a solid performance is 11-year-old Ted Donaldson who does a fine job as an orphan kid who is taken under Robinson's wing. This is more a sketch for a movie than a movie; it plays out like an overlong episode of a bad family sitcom. It climaxes with a dreadfully done combat scene in which Robinson heroically runs a bulldozer into a nest of Japanese soldiers (look closely and you'll see that the men getting crushed are dummies with barely human faces painted on them) and Armstrong engages in the most ludicrous scene of hand-to-hand combat in any Hollywood movie ever. The propaganda element must have seemed awfully out of date by the time this was released midway through 1944 (it is set in 1942). I'm very happy that TCM continues to mine the Columbia movie vaults, but this dud should have been left moldering on the shelves. [TCM]