Monday, August 31, 2009

THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS (1950)

This is the third film about St. Francis that I have seen in the past few years, after FRANCIS OF ASSISI and BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON; it's the least dramatic (which is not necessarily a bad thing); it reminded me of Pasolini's GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW in its earthy, low-key approach, using mostly non-professional actors--in this case actual monks. The film is not a biographical narrative but an episodic string of vignettes involving Francis and his small band of friars. In Francis' life, the film begins where BROTHER SUN ends, with the friars returning home from Rome with the Pope's blessing, and ends with Francis (Brother Nazario Gerardi) deciding that the group needs to split up with each friar spreading the word of God on his own. Among the vignettes: the friars out in the soaking rain, denied entrance to their own shack by a squatter, yet still filled with the joy of life; Brother Ginepro frequently arriving back half-naked because he's given his tunic to the poor; the friars getting quite excited by a visit from Sister Clare; a poignant meeting between Francis and a leper; Francis asking a flock of birds to stop chirping while he prays. The longest episode has Ginepro, the simplest of the bunch, mistaken for an assassin by the forces of the warlord Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi) who has occupied a local village. Nicolaio orders him killed, but Ginepro's passivity and humility baffle him, and he winds up not only letting the friar go, but taking his men and leaving the village. The scene is violent--Ginepro gets roundly roughed up by the warriors--but also humorous, with Nicolaio stuck in a huge suit of armor that he can't see out of. The vignettes are separated by title cards accompanied by a churchy organ chord. Directed by Roberto Rossellini, a few years after his acclaimed neo-realist masterpiece OPEN CITY; the style of this is realistically gritty in some aspects (the mud, the dirt, the unadorned countryside, the primitive housing), but it really feels more like myth or magical realism, even though the only real "magic" is when the birds stop singing. Federico Fellini co-wrote the screenplay. [Ovation]

Friday, August 28, 2009

SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955)

I DVR'd this film I'd never heard of and almost erased it without watching it, but I'm glad I didn't because it turned out to be a great little character-driven anti-Commie B-film (not quite a noir, but close). The entire film takes place at a grungy little seaside diner owned by Keenan Wynn. The help staff consists of pretty, young waitress Terry Moore and craggy, rough-and-tumble cook Lee Marvin (the character's nickname is Slob). Marvin takes a lot of crap for being stupid, but we soon discover he's smarter than he looks: he's collecting atomic secrets from the nearby research university and selling them to an unseen big boss. There are a handful of frequent visitors to the diner: Wynn's war buddy Whit Bissell, who has a shell-shock problem; a fisherman who is a member of Marvin's ring; two easy-going poultry salesmen who aren't quite what they seem; and a physics professor from the university (Frank Lovejoy) who has the hots for Moore (and who also isn't quite what he seems). I don't want to ruin the twists and turns in the enjoyable plot except to say that there are guns and fisticuffs and snappy dialogue, and a satisfying ending.

The film feels very much like a play with everything happening on one set, the diner, with a handful of scenes outside on and near the beach, and though the direction is nothing special, the writing and performances are top-notch. The young Marvin (pictured above) is the best of the batch; occasionally he seems in danger of going comically over the top, but he never quite does; his character can switch on a dime between brooding violence and comic self-deprecation. It's a more interesting and nuanced performance than most of his later roles. Wynn is in love with Terry (though he knows he doesn't have a chance), but his homosocial bonds with both Marvin (with whom he engages in some amusing competitive shirtless weight-lifting) and Bissell are unusually strong. Lovejoy gets a good love scene with Moore--he quizzes her on her upcoming civil servant exam between kisses--though for most of the movie, he doesn't get a chance to do much except keep us wondering which side he's on. A surprisingly good unheralded B-flick. [TCM]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

OUR BETTERS (1933)

An early George Cukor film, based on a Somerset Maugham comedy of manners; it aims for Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde territory and misses, but is fitfully amusing. The plot is best laid out as a list of characters. Constance Bennett is Pearl, a rich American hardware store heiress who lives in England and, as the film opens, has just married Lord George; she discovers that his family is essentially broke and he intends to continue dallying with his mistress (so much so that we rarely see him again). Pearl becomes a social butterfly who attracts the paparazzi and despite her sham marriage, she enjoys being the novelty American amongst the titled folks. She soon has a rich lover, Arthur (Minor Watson), who keeps calling her "Girlie" despite her stated dislike for the nickname. Her visiting sister Bessie has a perfectly nice American boyfriend named Fleming, but she toys with accepting a marriage proposal from Lord Harry. The middle-aged Duchess Minnie (Violet Kemble Cooper) is Pearl's best buddy (in rather the same sense that the women in THE WOMEN are best buddies) and is carrying on with Pepe, a handsome gigolo (Gilbert Roland) who we know cheats on her. The only character for whom frivolous affairs does not seem to be the norm is Princess Flora. One weekend during a house party at Pearl's at which all the characters are present, things get tangled up rather nastily when it is discovered that Pearl and Pepe have been carrying on right under Minnie's nose. Minnie makes a big stink, which triggers other tensions that threaten to ruin the weekend--Pearl doesn't care so much about the revelation of her affairs as that Minnie's leaving her house party early will stain her sterling reputation as a hostess. A happy ending, of sorts, is had when Ernest (Tyrell Davis), a highly sought after dance teacher, shows up in the last few minutes and teaches Minnie to tango, which seems to take her mind completely off of her other problems, never mind that Ernest is one of the most flamingly effeminate characters in Hollywood's early sound era.

Though this does play out as a comedy, there aren't a lot of laughs to be had, despite the presence of several one-liners which strive for the level of Wilde or Coward but fail. Two line deliveries stood out for me: When Minnie finds out that Pearl's father got his start selling bananas on the sidewalks of New York, she haughtily declares the banana to be "a most unpleasant vegetable." At the end, when Minnie and Pearl literally kiss and make up, Ernest shrieks, "What an exquisite spectacle! Two ladies of title, kissing one another!" I also liked Pepe's observation that "if one felt about things at night as one does the next morning, life would be an awful lot easier." The actors are generally good, though Bennett wore on me a bit with what grew to be a rather one-note performance. Charles Starrett is handsome as Fleming but he doesn't have much to do. Grant Mitchell, as an American who thinks mistakenly that he's doing a good job passing himself off as English, is a bit low energy, and the Yanks vs. Brits humor is fairly oblique. Cooper and Roland are both excellent, and though some modern viewers may be offended by Tyrell Davis' over-the-top flamboyance, complete with eye shadow and huge bee-stung lips, his brief scene does make for a memorable climax. A fun movie as long as you're not expecting one of Cukor's classics. [TCM]

Friday, August 21, 2009

PARIS UNDERGROUND (1945)

By the early 1940's, after hitting a career peak in TOPPER (1938), Constance Bennett was reduced to starring in B-movies. This one, the first film in which she had starred in three years, was also produced by her, and she graciously gives top billing to British music hall star Gracie Fields. The two work together quite well, and the story, which starts as a typical Hollywood version of what European resistance fighters were doing and morphs into a female bonding narrative, is OK. The main problem is that the film cannot overcome its obviously cheap production values. Bennett is a well-to-do Parisian who is totally unprepared for the invasion of the Germans; her husband (George Rigaud) thinks she's being too flippant and her friend (Fields) is in a panic to leave the city. Eventually, the two women get on the road and even find a backroads route to get around the teeming hordes of other escapees, but soon get turned back by advance German troops. While stopped at an inn (for tea!), they befriend an injured British soldier and wind up taking him back with them to Paris, and with Rigaud's help, they smuggle him out of occupied France. Bennett and Fields decide to continue their work with the Underground (there's a nice smuggling scene which involves a fake funeral held right under the Nazis' noses), but after a while, the Gestapo, angry that so many downed Allied fliers are escaping, plant a soldier in order to find the smugglers. The last part of the film works up some excitement as Fields is caught between a rock and a hard place and needs to find the resolve to kill in order to survive. There’s a well-done chase scene involving Bennett and Rigaud (who I kept thinking was going to be exposed as a Nazi), and a sentimental finale that works surprisingly well. Two familiar faces show up in supporting roles: Eily Malyon as Bennett's landlord and Kurt Kreuger as a Gestapo agent. Not a bad movie, but one in which the need for a better budget is palpable. The British title, MADAME PIMPERNEL, is quite misleading. [DVD]

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SPACE MASTER X-7 (1958)

I haven’t really thought this through yet, but based on recent viewings, I’m thinking that the late 50’s was a bad time for science fiction cinema. The glory days of the trailblazing films of the mid-50’s, like GODZILLA, THEM, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and the early Ray Harryhausen movies had been largely replaced by the sub-B likes of TEENAGE MONSTER, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN, and THE COSMIC MAN. This one isn’t so much SF as a cheapie police movie with Dragnet-like narration. After rocketship Space Master X-7 returns from Mars, scientist Paul Frees is examining some of the specimens when his ex-wife (Lyn Thomas) arrives, making trouble over a child custody case. She leaves in a huff, then later hears on the radio that Frees was found dead that night. Our hero, Bill Williams, discovers that a Martian fungus which Frees had named “Bloodrust” killed him and is being carried by Thomas, who, assuming the police are looking for her in connection with Frees’ death, is on the run. That’s it: a Typhoid Mary melodrama dressed up as science-fiction. The most interesting aspect is seeing Paul Frees, famous for his cartoon voices (particularly Boris Badenov on Rocky & Bullwinkle). The potentially scary fungus looks like a wet, pulsating tarp. The domestic drama between Frees and Thomas works up some tension, but goes nowhere. Folks on IMDb who saw this in their childhood found it scary, but now its only value is as a novelty item. [FMC]

Sunday, August 16, 2009

MOON PILOT (1962)

When a chimpanzee returns from moon orbit safe and sound, the Air Force decides to send up a human astronaut only days later (!) with no planning (!) and no training (!). During a celebratory dinner, the general (Brian Keith) asks for a volunteer (!) and no one steps forward (?!) until the chimp pokes Tom Tryon in the ass and his reaction is taken for volunteering. The chimp winds up going nutty and is confined to a hospital room, but the mission is still on. Tryon is allowed to take a quick trip home to see his mom and is sworn to secrecy, but a beatnik girl decked out in purple (Dany Savel, pictured with Tryon) hooks up with him on an airplane and seems to know all about his mission. Despite the fact that a federal security agent (Edmond O'Brien) has been assigned to follow Tryon, the girl keeps popping up out of nowhere. It turns out that she’s an alien who has a formula which can be painted on the space capsule that will keep dangerous radiation from making Tryon go crazy like the chimp did. A wild goose chase follows with O'Brien certain that Savel is a spy.

I watched this lukewarm Disney comedy because it was on TCM as part of their tribute to the 40th anniversary of the moon landing; despite its title and premise, however, only a couple minutes of the film actually occur in space, and the moon is only barely glimpsed. It’s notable for containing one of the few starring roles by Tryon, an actor who was being groomed as another Rock Hudson, but who retired at the end of the decade and became a successful writer of good horror novels (The Other, Harvest Home). The movie follows the formula of the vanilla family comedies of the era: romance but no sex or sex appeal, a lot of screaming by clueless characters (in this case, mostly from Keith, who actually does a nice job screaming, almost like he was doing an audition for the George C. Scott role in DR. STRANGELOVE), dumb authority figures, slapstick chases. Tryon is handsome in a weirdly angular way (and gets a quick shirtless scene), but bland, and Savel is totally wooden and not particularly attractive. From today's standpoint, the way the moon orbit mission is put together (suddenly, with volunteers) is ludicrously unbelievable, and most likely was even back then. There is some mild fun made of government (a buffonish Congressman is chided for not reading his copy of "Simple Science for Senators"), and the best scene involves a police line-up of beatnik girls spouting poetry, banging on bongos, and generally acting like they're high. Disney juvenile Tommy Kirk is billed as a "guest star," but only has two small, totally forgettable scenes. Nancy Kulp (Miss Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies) has an equally small part. [TCM]

Friday, August 14, 2009

12 TO THE MOON (1960)

The International Space Order sends twelve people on a moon landing mission on a rocketship called the Lunar Eagle. The passengers are a multicultural lot, including a Frenchman, a Turk, a Russian, and two women, one from Japan and one from Sweden. And a lazy little cocker spaniel, cats, monkeys, and birds. Of course, the leader is an all-American, blond, GI-Joe type (Ken Clark). Mostly, they get along, though there is some predictable tension between the older German and the young Polish-born Israeli. While exploring the surface of the moon, the British guy is caught in quicksand and dies; the Turkish guy and the Swedish woman (who as far as I could tell, shot each other exactly one ambiguous glance before takeoff) head off to a moon cave for some canoodling and wind up more or less kidnapped by aliens--whom we never see. The aliens do, however, manage to communicate with the spaceship through some strange Chinese-looking pictographs which, of course, the Japanese woman can translate (!). When our survivors head back to Earth, they find that North America is being flash-frozen by the aliens, and the German and Israeli sacrifice themselves to fly an atomic bomb down a volcano to reverse the effects of the big freeze.

This forgotten flick was part of TCM's moon movie marathon in July. The problem with these B-movies from the 50's and 60's about space exploration is that, now that we know how space missions really work, these fanciful flicks are too easy to make fun of, and the low budgets don’t help. This one is about as laughable as any, but it feels a notch above some of the others, if not in production than in script and intent. For its time, the sheer sweep of nationalities seems almost utopian, and for the most part offensive stereotypes are avoided. The sets and effects are terrible, of course, but they provide the most fun for the viewer. The space helmets have "invisible" face shields (clear plastic must have been too much for the budget), the moon sets are shoddy, and when they first land on the moon, we can clearly see a stagehand creeping about in the darkness--I tried to give the director the benefit of the doubt and assumed briefly that the figure was an alien, but no, it’s just a glaring mistake.

Clark is handsome and hunky and does an acceptable job as the central figure, though somewhat surprisingly he doesn't really have much to do except look like he knows what’s going on. There’s a brief scene of Clark heading to his ultrasound shower on the ship, dressed only in a towel, and his chest practically made the whole movie worth watching (for me). The lovely Norwegian starlet Anna-Lisa is, well, lovely as the Swedish astronaut—I don’t remember her having a single line of dialogue. Silent film star Francis X. Bushman has a small role as the elderly spokesman for the space agency. The navigator (Cory Devlin) bears a remarkable resemblance to current-day astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has become this generation's Carl Sagan. Also in the cast: Robert Montgomery Jr. (Elizabeth Montgomery's brother) and Tom Conway (George Sanders' brother). The write-ups on IMDb for this movie are overwhelmingly negative, but B-movie buffs will enjoy it. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965)

In 1936, a 16-year-old tomboyish (and mentally unbalanced) urchin named Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood), tired of a drab life on the Angel Beach boardwalk with her aging, senile mother, sends out a homemade audition film to film studios, hoping to break into the movies. Studio boss Ray Swan (Christopher Plummer) signs her up and gets the star-making machinery going, pushing her as a kind of teenage Shirley Temple. Her first movie is a hit, but handsome movie star Wade Lewis (Robert Redford) sweeps her off her feet, marries her, then leaves her on their wedding night--he's apparently a bisexual playboy who had a similar affair with Swan's wife, leading her to attempt suicide. Then Daisy's mom dies and, while finishing up some lip-syncing for her new movie, Daisy has a breakdown. She, too, tries suicide, but eventually finds the inner strength to forge her own life, which would seem to be outside of the studio system.

The film is based on a novel by Gavin Lambert, and the title character may have been inspired by Judy Garland, but only barely. Garland was a show-biz pro from a young age and her downfall was initiated by the drugs her studio gave her to keep up a hectic schedule (though she also had entanglements with bisexual men). Daisy Clover's problem seems to be deep-seated mental illness--or at least, that’s what Wood’s unintentionally comical over-the-top performance would indicate. Wood is flat-out terrible, though her failure isn’t all her fault; the character goes from 15 to 17, and the miscast Wood, who was 27, never looks anything like a teenager--and no attempt is made to give the film a real 30’s look. Her best scene is her breakdown in the recording booth. Redford is handsome and shows some flair in one of his first starring roles, though he mostly vanishes halfway through. Roddy McDowell is wasted in the small and unimportant role of Plummer's secretary. The only standouts in the cast are Ruth Gordon as Daisy’s nutty mom and Katharine Bard who gets a couple of juicy scenes as Plummer's wife. There is one interesting musical number, "The Circus Is a Wacky World," which we see being filmed for one of Daisy's movies from behind the scenes; the song’s lyrics explicitly (and perhaps ham-handedly) draw a parallel between the artifice of the circus and the artifice of Hollywood. Otherwise, this isn't worth your time. Some critics speak of the ambiguity surrounding the Redford character's sexuality, but it's not a mystery: Plummer quite plainly states that Redford is compelled to have sex with many partners, both men and women. [DVD]

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

ONE CROWDED NIGHT (1940)

An alternate title for this almost interesting B-melodrama, possibly inspired by THE PETRIFIED FOREST, could be "Everybody Comes to Autotopia." The narrative covers one 12-hour period, from roughly noon to midnight, at a gas station/diner/motel (called Autotopia) in the middle of the desert. The place is run by an older married couple, their daughters Ann Revere (who has a little son) and the teenaged Gale Storm (pictured), and hired hand Billie Seward. Truck driver William Haade stops in to flirt with Seward, and gas station attendant Dick Hogan is sweet on Storm. We find out later that Revere’s husband is in prison in Duluth on armed robbery charges, though he is awaiting a parole decision. It seems that the usual high point of their day is when the bus makes its scheduled fueling stop and a passel of passengers come rolling in for burgers. Today, they get a few more adventures than usual. First, a female passenger faints and is given a room; it turns out she’s pregnant and on her way to San Diego to see her sailor husband. Then a down-on-his-luck elixir salesman (J. M. Kerrigan) gets a flat tire and asks for a room while his car is being fixed. Then Revere’s husband (Paul Guilfoyle) shows up, fresh from a jailbreak, trying to get the goods on the crooks who framed him. Then two cops show up to stay the night with an AWOL sailor (Charles Lang) who by bizarre coincidence is the pregnant woman's husband. Finally, two gangsters take a room, and guess what? They're the guys Guilfoyle is trying to track down. All these plot lines plus a few more criss-cross before getting resolved. Given the film's title and short length, you would think this would all move along quickly, but the pace is sluggish until the last 15 minutes. It generally holds your attention, though the top-billed actors, Seward and Haade, are non-entities (although Haade has over 100 roles listed on IMDb, mostly in B-westerns and often uncredited). My favorite line: Kerrigan pouring his (alcoholic) elixir into a glass of soda pop, watching it bubble over, and saying smugly to Gale Storm, "Knowledge is power." [TCM]

Sunday, August 02, 2009

JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (1969)

This crazy sci-fi film is really two movies in one. Set in a future where space exploration has advanced to the point where men have landed on Mars, the first 40 minutes is an unthrilling political spy thriller in which Eurosec, a European NASA, discovers a previously unknown planet directly opposite ours on, duh, the far side of the sun. In order to get disinterested countries interested, they allow a Russian spy to get hold of secret info, and the Americans agree to help. The last hour of the movie becomes a more traditional sci-fi adventure, albeit one suited more for a Twilight Zone episode: American astronaut Roy Thinnes and British scientist Ian Hendry rocket off to explore this world (and, while in hibernation, experience a B-movie version of the trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey "stargate" sequence) and find out that it's an exact mirror image of Earth, with the same people and the same countries, but with backwards writing. [This is not exactly a spoiler, as the movie's original title was Doppleganger]

On balance, this is a dull movie, though there a few reasons for watching. First, it's a live action film produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, creators of the cult classic puppet TV show and movie Thunderbirds. Most of the exterior and action scenes are done with miniatures--fairly obvious but still fun to watch, especially the rocket launches and crashes and explosions (and a very effective scene of an astronaut, on fire, thrown out of his ship). Second, the plot is, to a point, interesting, though as soon as you give any thought at all to the premise, it all falls apart (i.e., why don't they talk backwards as well?); as one critic has pointed out, it's really more in the realm of fantasy than science. The political intrigues in the beginning have some promise, but play out slowly and confusingly and have little bearing on the rest of the movie. Finally, most of the acting is solid, given that the actors are basically playing Thunderbird-like puppet characters; Herbert Lom as the spy, Patrick Wymark as the head of the project, and Hendry are good, and the very handsome Thinnes (pictured) is more than competent as the stolid hero, making a very convincing astronaut-type, both on the ground and in space. Unfortunately, the only two women in the film give poor performances, though in their defense, their characters are total pieces of cardboard; Lynn Loring (married to Thinnes in real life at the time) is Thinnes' disagreeable wife who believes that his apparent sterility is a sign of his crippled manhood, and Loni von Friedl is his potential mistress who is, however, a complete zero. Thinnes, who still acts occasionally, is best known for the cult TV series The Invaders and had a recurring role on The X-Files. Though too long and clunky, I did wind up with a certain affection for this film, the kind you might have for an ugly 3-legged puppy. [DVD--the print is colorful and spotless, though there no extras at all]