Wednesday, September 30, 2009

aka TONIGHT AT 8:30

An adaptation of three short plays by Noel Coward (at right), each presented with the opening of red stage curtains, even though they are not performed on a stage--though they might as well be, as all three are rather stagy in presentation and acting. The first, "Red Peppers," is about a second-rate, husband-and-wife music hall duo, a spat they have one evening between shows, and the surprising outcome onstage when a drunken conductor, upset with their insults, tries to sabotage their act. This sets the tone for the rest of the film: witty dialogue, generally well handled, but given shrill, sometimes obnoxiously so, delivery. Ted Ray and Kay Walsh are OK as the husband and wife; I give them points for being bad (deliberately, I assume) while performing their musty old stage act. It's a fine line to walk, being good actors while trying to pull off a bad act, and it's something that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor didn't even try to do in the flashback scenes early in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (they're way too good for the audience to think that they were "bad").

The second play, "Fumed Oak," is about a horrible little suburban family in which the wife, daughter, and wife's mother spend all their time whining and fussing until one evening, the husband (Stanley Holloway) unleashes his pent-up anger and frustration against them. It's the funniest one of the three, due to Holloway's fine low-simmer performance, though it feels a little uncomfortable these days as much of the bile seems to be aimed at the women just for being women. The last, "Ways and Means," concerns a broke couple who are about to be kicked out of a French villa at which they've been staying, and the plan they hastily concoct with their wealthy hostess's chauffeur, whom they discover is also a burglar. I enjoyed the acting in this one the most: the chemistry between the husband and wife (Nigel Patrick and Valerie Hobson), the low-key playing of Jack Warner as the burglar, and the silly frippery of Jesse Royce Landis as the hostess, though as the longest of the three, it feels a little dragged out with a couple of characters who seem to exist just to pad out the running time. The print shown on TCM was in Technicolor but a bit washed out and very heavy on the reds. All in all, worth seeing if only as a novelty. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Rather drab pre-Code romantic melodrama which is spiced up by a fabulous supporting performance from Kay Francis. The first scene of the film focuses on Francis, playing a renowned horsewoman who is also constantly on the prowl for men, especially working class men--we first see her making out with a stableboy who briefly becomes her butler before getting sent back to the stables. At a high society party being held to celebrate the engagement of Billie Dove to the titled Philip Strange, Dove arrives with rather high-strung, struggling violinist Basil Rathbone in tow and announces that the two have just been married. Her friends disapprove (except for Francis) and her father is pissed: "When you were a child," he says, "it was stray cats you brought home." "But," she replies, "I'm older now." The two make a go of things for a while until Francis takes a hand in boosting Rathbone's career; soon, he's a famous musician and in the middle of an affair with Francis, but he’s also in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Dove is pursued by an old friend (Kenneth Thomson), a doctor who is tending to Rathbone. Francis soon grows tired of Rathbone and starts tossing flowers at the chauffeur, which aggravates Rathbone's condition so much that he has a crippling attack on stage one night, and finds his playing arm is paralyzed.

The question we’re supposed to ask is, which woman will wind up helping the poor violinist recover? But what I wanted to know was, who will be the next target of Francis' raw sexual insatiability? Sadly, it's only the first question that gets answered, and in a predictable way. Dove was a star of silent films, but retired from the screen at the age of 29 just a couple of years after this film. She's OK here, but Francis is so much more interesting (both the actress and her character) that she wipes Dove off the screen. Rathbone is meant to be passive and "artistic," but he's so unappealing that I couldn't see what either woman saw in him, and his Italianish accent is ludicrous, reminding me of Erik Rhodes' deliberately comic accent in THE GAY DIVORCEE. There is a nice Christmas scene with snow and carolers. This is a must for Kay Francis fans, but others may not get as much enjoyment out of it. [TCM]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

LA RONDE (1950)

This is a frothy, charming, spicy little confection about love and sex with virtually no overarching narrative and, as far as I can tell, no real lesson or moral to impart, aside from the observation that love is a game of deception, pleasure and pain. The film, set in Vienna, begins with our narrator (Anton Walbrook, at right) strolling out of the fog and through the streets, telling us he is the personification of our desire to know everything; he sees life "in the round." As he walks he sings a song about everyone taking their turn on love’s carousel, and winds up at an actual carousel where he begins to narrate the short story cycle that makes up the rest of the film.

A young prostitute picks up Franz, a soldier and gives him a free ride, so to speak, down by the river. The next night, Franz makes out with Marie, a housemaid, on a park bench and almost loses his sword (swords are everywhere here in turn-of-the-century Vienna and, yes, they are metaphors). Marie has a tryst with Alfred, a son of the family she works for, and Alfred is soon renting an apartment so he can meet Emma, a married woman. We see Emma and her husband Charles have a bedroom discussion about extramarital affairs, and soon Charles takes his mistress Anna to a fancy restaurant where they have a private room for dinner and sex—in that order. He sets her up in an apartment (I think the same one where Alfred has his rendezvous) which she uses to meet with Robert, a writer, who is seeing an actress starring in one of his plays, who is sleeping with a count (who is scandalized at her suggestion that they have sex in the morning, though not scandalized enough not to go through with it), who goes out and gets drunk and spends the night with, surprise, the prostitute from the first episode.

The film espouses a fairly cynical view of love, and given the emphasis on extramarital affairs, I was expecting some unhappiness or even tragedy eventually, but aside from some hurt feelings, things remain light throughout. Based on a play, the movie highlights its artifice constantly, usually through the character of Walbrook: in his first stroll (shot in one long take), we see him walk past studio lights on the street set; later, he uses a clapboard as a transition between stories; when a character has a spell of impotency, he brings the carousel to a grinding halt; as a particularly randy pair of lovers begin to go at it, Walbrook actually censors the film, cutting and splicing in front of us. Despite the artifice (or maybe because of it), the film is a feast for the eyes and is shot beautifully, with lots of long takes filled with fluid movement through elaborately appointed sets. For some reason, the actors in the first half make the strongest impression, including a young Simone Signoret as the prostitute, Daniel Gelin (pictured) as Alfred, Simon Simon (of CAT PEOPLE) as the maid, and Danielle Darrieux as Emma. The song that Walbrook sings is quite lovely and memorable. A treat all around, and available from Criterion in a gorgeous restored print. [TCM]

Friday, September 25, 2009


Dennis O'Keefe comes home from the war to find out that a rich uncle has left him a lot of money, with an odd stipulation: he gets a million dollars right away but has to spend it all in two months’ time and have no assets left. If he does that, he gets another seven million. The whole point is supposedly to make O'Keefe understand the value of money by making him sick of spending it. He can only give 5% to charity. And, oh yeah, he can't tell anyone what’s going on. And, oh yeah, he can't get married during that time. Naturally, his fiancĂ©e (Helen Walker) isn’t happy because they were supposed to get married right away. And his family and friends are worried when O'Keefe sets up a company and starts to spend money wastefully. Unfortunately, his crazy business decisions start making him more money so he has to start spending even more wastefully.

This old chestnut seems to have a clever plot device, but it's one of those you can’t think too much about because the loopholes become too obvious: Why can't he tell anyone? Why can't he get married? Hell, why doesn't he just admit failure, especially when the business starts making money, and keep the million? Happily, the film plays out at a breakneck speed and O'Keefe makes a very likable hero. The supporting cast of this independent B-movie is fairly lackluster, except for Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson as O'Keefe’s valet. There's Gail Patrick as a socialite who makes Walker jealous, June Havoc as a chorus girl, and Mischa Auer as a Broadway producer in whose show O'Keefe puts money; other familiar faces include John Litel, Neil Hamilton, and Joe Sawyer. This was remade in the 80's with Richard Pryor and John Candy, but I don't think I could sit through another go-round of this silly plot. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Though routinely treated as a horror film (especially by Dark Sky, the company that has issued this on DVD), this is really a period-piece swashbuckler, and as such it's enjoyable, but horror fans will certainly be disappointed, as will anyone hoping for the naughty decadence that title implies. The Hellfire Club was an actual underground social group of the 1700's which mocked religion in a rather tame manner but was known for supposedly indulging in black masses and orgies. In the opening scene, two boys spy on a meeting of the club, during which it appears as if a Satanic human sacrifice is occurring, but it turns out to be an elaborate jest leading off a mass orgy. When discovered, one of the boys is whipped by his father, the club's leader, and when he and his mother try to escape, their carriage goes over a hill. Both are presumed dead, but the boy survives. Years later, the boy has become an acrobat in a traveling circus; when he (Keith Michell) finds out his father has died and the estate has passed into the hands of his cousin (Peter Arne), the second boy from the opening scene, Michell decides to go claim what is rightfully his. He poses as a groom, gets a job with Arne, has an affair with Adrienne Corri, Arne's lover, and attempts to find a missing document which will back up his claim on the estate. He is helped out by members of his circus troupe, including his longtime love, the buxom Kai Fischer, and by a lawyer (Peter Cushing, in what amounts to a cameo) who has been trying to get evidence against Arne on charges of espionage. At heart, this is a throwback to an old revenge melodrama, which in the classic movie era might have starred Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. The closest this film comes to that kind of talent is Arne who does a nice job reveling in his villainy without going into camp. Michell is handsome but colorless, though he's quite good in a brief scene in which he masquerades as a foppish French nobleman. The plotting is satisfactory and the fight scenes are carried off nicely. If only there was a little more blood and a few more orgies... [DVD]

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I suspect this is a film more known of than seen these days; it was the first British movie to be a substantial hit in America, and it won Charles Laughton an Oscar, but it plays out in a jerky, tableaux-like style and it's a fairly low-budget affair compared to the kind of "pomp and circumstance" production values we're used to for historical films about royalty. But Laughton's wonderful performance almost single-handedly makes it worth seeing. The film mostly stays true to its title which allows it to skimp on scenes of big crowds and affairs of state; most of the action takes place offstage, as it were, at the palace. The film might be better called "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (like the pompous but fondly-remembered 70's instrumental album by Rick Wakeman) as the choppy narrative focuses on the relationships between Henry and his wives. The first wife is left out altogether (a title card says she was "too respectable" to be of interest), and the action starts on the day that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, is to be executed for adultery, though the fact that she did not bear Henry a male heir was a strike against her, too. We're caught up to speed by overhearing court gossip, and introduced to Katharine Howard (Binnie Barnes), a scheming lady-in-waiting who aspires to work her way to be Queen. Merle Oberon, in one of her first credited roles as Anne, gets to look sad and lovely for a minute or two, and then is gone. As soon as the execution bells are rung, Henry marries Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) who does have a son, but dies in childbirth. The fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleaves (Elsa Lanchester) is fluttery but smart, and though Henry takes a liking to her, she refuses to sleep with him, apparently because she's having an affair with the man Henry sent to bring her to England (John Loder); they wind up playing cards on their wedding night and their marriage is annulled, though they remain friendly.

Katharine Howard finally gets her wish, after carrying on an affair with Henry (a high comic point is a scene in which Henry tries to sneak away to her chambers while his royal guardsmen keep snapping to attention and shouting "King's Guard" when he passes by); she becomes wife #5 and he's happy for a time until he discovers she's having an affair with one of his men-at-arms (Robert Donat), and it's off with her head. In old age, he marries his children's maid (Everley Gregg) who becomes a nag trying to keep Henry healthy. Laughton seems a natural for the part: rotund yet spry, strutting around every inch a king yet carrying on like an overgrown child. A scene of Henry talking about refinement and manners as he eats like a pig, tosses bones on the floor, and belches is certainly a highlight of Laughton's early career. A modern audience would probably expect an epic and would be disappointed, but as a light character study, this remains worth seeing. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


This is a classic movie I've avoided seeing for years for two reasons: 1) its reputation as a glossy piece of big-studio "yellowface" (a movie about Asians cast with mostly Caucasian actors); 2) it stars Paul Muni, an actor considered one of the greats whom I've never liked. Though the movie's not terrible, I should have followed my instincts. Muni is the farmer Wang who marries the passive house slave O-Lan (Luise Rainer). Much-needed rains arrive on their wedding night, which is seen as a good omen. O-Lan gives birth to their first child during a storm (a well-done sequence), and soon they have three children, five fields, and are considered prosperous until a terrible famine hits. Rather than sell their lands, they head to the city where they live by begging until, during the turmoil of a revolution, O-Lan winds up with a bag of jewels. The family return home rich, Wang takes a second wife (his uncle says, "Why not? You have two oxen!"), who becomes a bad influence, even having an affair with Wang's second son. The climax occurs during a huge locust attack, which Wang manages to defeat with the help of his college-educated eldest son (Keye Luke). Production-wise, the film is top-notch, but I find Muni and Rainer to be weak, with Muni overplaying and Rainer underplaying, though her character is the backbone of the story. Charley Grapewin channels Walter Brennan as Wang's father, and Walter Connelley is a shade too much to take as an obnoxious uncle. Luke, one of the few Asian actors in a major role, is fine, as is Tilly Losch as the naughty second wife. [TCM]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

DE SADE (1969)

Crazy weird bad movie which gets off to an interesting beginning with some postmodern narrative trickery, but soon becomes boring as hell. Kier Dullea is the Marquis De Sade, whom we first meet as a decrepit old man returning to his uncle’s seemingly abandoned mansion. However, once we're inside, his uncle (John Huston) and a troupe of actors, all of whom may or may not be figments of Sade's imagination, use a large ballroom to stage a number of scenes enacting incidents from Sade's past, which then become flashback memories. The very young Sade witnesses Huston fooling around with a servant girl in a stable and is whipped; his uncle tells him that an individual’s deeds don't matter as long as a face of virtue is shown to the world. Later Sade is forced into a marriage contract with the plain and frigid Renee (Anna Massey), but is actually in love with her sister Anne (Senta Berger). These two things seem to be the seeds of the violent sexual behaviors that obsess Sade for the rest of his life and get him into trouble with his powerful relatives and the law. Eventually, he does have an interlude with Anna (who, if I read it right, is also bedded by Huston at least once), but they are parted when she contracts the plague and dies. We last see Sade as a dying man attended by nuns, trying to discover a "special moment of reality."

The convoluted and theatrical narrative structure is probably easier to parse now than it was for mainstream audiences in 1969, though I think some last-minute cutting (not to mention occasional random orgy scenes in slow-motion with purple tinting) muddied the already murky waters, especially toward the end of the film. I figure Huston is a vision of death, like Jessica Lange was for Roy Scheider in ALL THAT JAZZ, so virtually the entire movie plays out as Sade lies on his deathbed. The controversial nature of Sade's life and philosophy is completely neutered here, with the most transgressive act pictured being some mild whipping of women's bare butts. Anyone with no previous knowledge of Sade would wonder why the hell he was considered such a threat to society that he had to be locked up in prisons and asylums for much of his life. Dullea is out-and-out terrible in the lead role--the handsome blandness and mild demeanor which made him perfect as astronaut Dave in 2001 make him absolutely wrong to play a raving sadist. His old age make-up, however, is very good. Massey is fine in a small role, and Huston's grandstanding is fun in the beginning but begins to wear after a while. Screenwriter Richard Matheson insists his material was badly handled, and indeed as I've noted, the story structure is the most interesting thing about the movie. MGM Home Entertainment has marketed this DVD as a cult film, but its following must consist solely of people who haven't actually seen it yet. [DVD]

Thursday, September 10, 2009


This rather mild comic thriller is available in several DVD editions because it's in the public domain and is an early Alfred Hitchcock sound film, but I suspect that only die-hard classic-movie fans will really have any interest in it. In a long, tense, and spooky opening sequence, a man (John Stuart) chasing his hat down a London street on a windy night discovers a light in an empty "for sale" house—the Number Seventeen address of the title—and decides to investigate; he finds a dead body on the second floor and a hobo (Leon M. Lion) skittering around the place claiming he had nothing to do with it. Then a young woman (Anne Casson) comes crashing through a skylight; she says she lives next door and was looking for her father, who disappeared from an upstairs locked room. A telegram had just been delivered for him about something that was going to happen that night at #17. Suddenly, there are two men and a deaf woman at the door claiming they were to meet the landlord to look over the house. They all head upstairs and the dead body is gone. Things become clear soon enough: the three visitors are jewel thieves who are to meet a man with a stolen necklace at the house, then get out of the country via an underground train which stops just under the house. It turns out, of course, that no one is quite what he or she seems, and events lead to a bus/train chase involving all the characters.

This feels the most like Hitchcock in the occasionally interesting use of camera movement and the rather awkward use of special effects; the miniature models used in the final chase sequence are painfully obvious, and yet somehow they don't really detract from the fun. Most of the fisticuffs scenes are in sped-up motion and the editing is awfully choppy (above and beyond any damage that's due to the age of the print). The film is based on a play and feels like it, with the first two-thirds all set inside the house, and the acting is generally adequate. I didn't mind Lion's constant comic relief, but he won't be to all tastes. No one else really shines except Anne Grey who manages to make a good impression as the deaf woman. My favorite line: when they find a pair of handcuffs near the dead body, Lion claims not to know what they are; Stuart asks him, "Ever seen handcuffs?" to which Lion replies, "No sir, I avoid 'em—I was brought up Baptist." [TCM]

Saturday, September 05, 2009


A fast-on-its-feet pre-Code melodrama, with the aura of an underclass version of GRAND HOTEL; here, the place where nothing and everything happens is the big city train depot of the title, introduced by a stylish crane shot down a city street and into the depot. We see a bustling cross-section of humanity, among them immigrants, sailors, bums, prostitutes, divorcees, and business travelers, and we eventually settle on one specific man, a hobo (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). When drunken traveler Frank McHugh leaves some luggage in the men’s room, Fairbanks lucks out, puts on the clean clothes, and discovers a fair chunk of money in the pockets. He treats his buddy (Guy Kibbee) to a nice dinner, then runs into Joan Blondell, who gives off a hooker vibe, so he takes her to a hotel room, plies her with food and drink, then discovers, to his momentary anger, that she’s a not a bad girl, but a chorus girl recovering from a broken ankle who needs cash for a ticket to Salt Lake City to rejoin her troupe. He agrees to help her, but a couple of complications arise. For one, she’s running away from a very creepy doctor who has been paying her to read porn out loud to him. For another, Fairbanks ends up in possession of a violin case full of money which turns out to belong to a counterfeiter (Alan Hale) whom the police are tracking. The police get involved and Fairbanks and Kibbee have to work at getting the mess straightened out. There’s an exciting trainyard chase and a relatively happy ending, even though it means that Fairbanks winds up in Kibbee’s company rather than Blondell’s. The film moves along quickly and has quirky characters and good acting. The intersecting plotlines give the illusion of a “Grand Hotel” narrative, but really they all come down to Fairbanks and Blondell. Fairbanks looks like Ralph Finnes and never quite seems gritty enough to be a hobo, despite the facial smudges the makeup department has given him. Blondell gets to stray a bit from her usual hard-bitten persona here and does a nice job. David Landau, who usually plays a thug, is a cop, albeit a vaguely thuggish one. Blink and you’ll miss Margaret Dumont, Charles Lane, and George Chandler. Scruffy fun. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


During WWI, officer Gordon Westcott freaks out as he's leading his men on a near-suicidal mission. Soldier Richard Barthelmess takes charge and snags an important prisoner, but is shot on the battlefield and assumed dead; Westcott takes the prisoner back to much acclaim and is too befuddled to tell the truth about what happened. However, Barthelmess, captured by the Germans, survives, though he becomes a morphine addict due to pain from his injuries. Back in the States, the two men see each other and, despite the hero's welcome that Westcott got, Barthelmess claims no hard feelings. The rest of the movie covers Barthelmess' post-war travails: Westcott gets him a job at his family's bank, but because of his addiction, he messes up at work and winds up committed to the State Narcotic Farm. He's released six months later, his mom dies, and he spends time at a "poor man's club" where he falls in with kind-hearted owner Aline MacMahon and eccentric communist Robert Barrat, and begins romancing Loretta Young. When he gets a job as a laundry deliveryman, his ambitious ways help him move up in the company, and soon he teams up with Barrat to market a new washing machine which works wonders and makes him and Barrat (who is now a fully committed capitalist) rich but leads to workers losing their jobs. There is labor-related mob violence, a death, prison time, and near the end, we see Barthelmess riding the rails and meeting up with Westcott, whose bank has closed down.

This movie, as most critics point out, seems like it covers practically every American social issue from WWI through the Depression. Though Barrat, the only card-carrying Communist in the movie, is made to seem ridiculous, the film does embrace a Socialist ethos. After the opening war scenes, it rarely feels "real," with Barthelmess coming off as a kind of Everyman figure caught up in a Depression-era fable. Taking that into account, this is still a solidly entertaining pre-Code film with interesting camerawork (lots of fluid panning shots) under the direction of William Wellman, and good performances by Young, MacMahon, Westcott, and Barrat (though I did tire of his constant tongue-clucking sound). Barthelmess is a bit wooden as usual but OK, and the supporting cast includes Grant Mitchell, Charley Grapewin, and Ward Bond. [TCM]