Friday, February 26, 2010


Trumpet player Prince Ellis is going to Hollywood and a lot of folks are unhappy with him: his wife Cleo is about to become his ex-wife and lose out on a share of his money; club singer Maxine, his mistress, hasn’t been asked to come along; John, his musical arranger, is upset because Prince has designs on his young daughter Mae, claiming he will send for her after his divorce becomes final. Finally, reporter Biff Boyd isn’t happy about being sent to interview him. Before Prince can leave town, someone throws a knife at him and he drops dead, though the police discover that he was actually killed with poison which was applied to the mouthpiece of his trumpet. As if there weren’t enough suspects, Biff and his girlfriend Linda discover a couple more: Chet, the MC at Prince’s nightclub, had a thing for Maxine, and Prince's valet Buck had a sister who killed herself after Prince dumped her. Suddenly, after a performance, Maxine drops dead on the club floor. Can Biff, Linda and the cops find the killer before he or she strikes again?

This would be a typical poverty row-mystery of the era except for two elements: 1) it has an all-black cast; 2) a good chunk of the last half of the movie is taken up with some solid swing jazz performances, a notch above the kind you would find in a higher-budgeted B-film from a major studio. I'd never heard of the musicians (The Four Toppers and Ceepee Johnson's Orchestra) but the songs, though given modest, no-frills productions, are worth not fast-forwarding through. The Four Toppers' "Jump, The Water's Fine" is especially fun and sounds as good as any vocal swing number of the day. The script is OK, though as with many a low-budget picture, much of the action happens off-screen or is delivered as exposition through dialogue. The acting of the leads (Monte Hawley as Biff, Marguerite Whitten as Linda) is strictly B-level, but some of the supporting actors are quite good, especially Jess Lee Brooks, coming off as a cross between Edward Arnold and James Earl Jones as the arranger, and Alfred Grant (pictured) as Chet, the MC. Vaudeville performer F.E. Miller is given "featured" status in the credits as a cop known as Sgt. Slim; he's mostly comic relief, but he winds up a hero in the end. Good fun, as long as you know not to expect a glossy MGM effort. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I'm not sure if one can call the "cutthroat-business-dealings" movie a genre, but there are several interesting examples of such films. Movies with some focus on office power struggles and the toll they take on people go all the way back to at least the 30's (EMPLOYEE'S ENTRANCE, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU) and up to the recent past and present (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, WALL STREET, the TV series Mad Men), and there is even a musical that fits the bill--HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, one of my personal favorites. This film was Rod Serling's big breakthrough; he wrote it as a television play and it was so popular, it was repeated within months (a relative rarity back then) and made into a movie the next year. Van Heflin plays a businessman who has just been recruited for a big Wall St. firm by boss Everett Sloane. Heflin doesn't realize it at first, but Sloane is grooming him to replace the aging vice president (Ed Begley Sr.), who helped found the company along with Sloane's father. The first clue is the re-assigning of Begley's secretary (Elisabeth Wilson) to Heflin. Later, in a meeting, Begley opposes Sloane's plan to close some newly acquired plants in a small town, arguing it will hurt the town, but Sloane comes down hard on Begley, saying he's being too sentimental. (It was at this point that I realized why I kept thinking that Sloane looked like Ebenezer Scrooge.) Begley's health is failing and he knows that Sloane wants to get rid of him, but he refuses to retire. Sloane likes the major report that Heflin and Begley turn in, but he insists on having Begley's name taken off the work. For Begley, it's all downhill from there. It's not really a spoiler to note that Begley eventually has a heart attack and dies, but it would spoil your enjoyment of the film to give away the somewhat unexpected way the cards fall for Heflin.

I haven't seen the original TV play, but this theatrical film is shot very much like a TV show, which, considering most of it takes place in boardrooms and hallways and homes, fits the material. The acting is generally fine, with Sloane and Begley getting most of the juicy dramatic scenes; Heflin, though his character is more acted upon than active, remains a strong figure throughout. Elizabeth Wilson as the secretary is a little over-the-top emotionally, as is Sloane on occasion, and Beatrice Straight is good as Heflin's wife. This will feel too dated for many viewers today, but I think the human strengths and weaknesses on display are still all too current. [TCM]

Monday, February 22, 2010


Rich Griffith Jones is set to marry his ward, the young Patrica Roc, but her visiting friend Margaret Lockwood (at left) sets her sights on Jones as soon as she sees him and soon enough, Jones marries Lockwood (and poor Roc, who manages the house, has to take part in the ritual of preparing the wedding bed). However, a placid life is not to be hers: on her wedding night, she has her breath taken away when she dances with the dashing Michael Rennie and soon she is bored with her life of leisure. When she discovers a secret passage in the house, she remarks that it will come in handy if she takes a lover, but first she winds up using it for a secret life of crime; inspired by stories of a daring highwayman, she disguises herself and robs back some jewelry she lost gambling. She gets such a thrill, she decides to keep it up. One night she meets the real highwayman (James Mason) and they become lovers. A string of melodramatic events follows, including an arrest, a trial, the slow poisoning of a household servant who knows too much about Lockwood's double life, and a hanging followed by a resurrection.

This period-piece adventure is great fun and Lockwood (who looks a bit like a more vivacious Olivia de Havilland) is very good as the sexy amoral anti-heroine; Roc, as the good girl, and Jones as the good guy, don't have a chance with the audience, and neither does anyone else, really, except Mason as the man who is almost her match. There are some fun supporting characters, including Felix Aylmer as a slightly addled Bible-quoting servant and Martita Hunt as a cousin. There are also great sets and smart dialogue. This British film was a big hit in its day but has been difficult to run across so I was happy that TCM has aired it. Don't get this confused with an 80's remake. [TCM]

Friday, February 19, 2010


Imagine a Poverty-Row studio plunking Nick and Nora Charles down in an Agatha Christie mystery with a "Hound of the Baskervilles" twist. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you'll like this modest comedy-thriller. On a stormy night, Wallace Ford and Barbara Pepper, two detectives, are supposed to meet a justice of the peace at an inn called the Red Rock Tavern, out in the middle of nowhere, to get married. When they arrive, they find a motley group of people sitting in the lobby waiting for a guy named Wentworth, who supposedly wrote to all of them to set up the meeting. Soon, one of their number is found dead, his throat apparently ripped out by a mad dog. Wentworth arrives and claims he was sent a letter just like the rest of them. Suddenly, the doors are all locked from the outside and the windows barred, and the mad dog seems to be hunting them all down one by one. The negative points: as with most movies of the low, low budget variety, there is virtually no background music; some line flubs are left in; the writing is not top-notch, with lots of plot loopholes, the biggest being that we get very little backstory on any characters, especially the central detective duo. The pluses: the solution is tricky and satisfying, and the camerawork is inventive, with lots of interesting tracking shots. Ford and Pepper are OK; the cast includes Joan Woodbury as an exotically accented fortune teller, and Clara Kimball Young and John Elliott as the managers of the inn. I could have done without some of the forced humor, mostly foisted off on Ford and Pepper. It was distributed by a short-lived company called Puritan Pictures. The Alpha DVD is not in the best shape, but a better print is unlikely to turn up. [DVD]

Monday, February 15, 2010


This pre-Code marital drama begins with a rather startling sight: the middle-aged Blanche Friderici in full Gertrude Stein drag, complete with hat, tie, vest, tweed jacket, pants, cigar, and hard facial expression. She's talking over a book proposal with publisher Lewis Stone and says she wants to write like Hemingway, though the topic of the planned book is what Stone calls the "office wife," the secretary who runs the business life of the executive and can be more of a "wife" than the at-home one (Friderici has total contempt for wives, calling them "fools"). She says the secretary usually reduces the wife to a mere "maker of beds and pancakes" and that the husband is usually unaware of the "bondage" he's in. Stone's secretary (Dale Fuller) runs a tight ship, but when he tells her that he's getting married, she faints dead away and resigns. The young and hard-working Dorothy Mackaill is promoted to replace Fuller and even though she's got a perfectly nice, if somewhat cocky, boyfriend (Walter Merrill) she still finds herself, almost against her will, primping and flirting for the boss. Soon she's become the "office wife" that Friderici's writing about, working constantly with Stone: at night, at poolside parties, and on business trips, and always too busy to see Merrill. Though there's no hanky-panky, she finds herself falling in love with Stone and, in a quandary, decides to pursue Merrill again. Her sister and roomie (Joan Blondell) tells her she should stick to her own kind, though Blondell also thinks that both men are "bad choices," the one wanting her for her work skills, and the other wanting her to have kids and do laundry, and she suggests that Mackaill will wind up lonely either way. Ultimately, it's Stone's wife's decision to get a divorce that pushes Stone and Mackaill together at the end, with a nice final shot the two on a beach at night.

TCM showed this during their "Screened Out" festival of gay and lesbian images in film, and though Friderici is only in the film for a few minutes, she does cut a memorable figure. She appears once in the beginning and once halfway through, as though her character was intended to be an "outsider" observer, commenting on the actions of those crazy heterosexuals, but the idea isn't developed very well. There is some clever use of doubled sequences, echoing each other thematically: Mackaill has two beach scenes, one with Merrill and the closing one with Stone, and there are two amusing fainting scenes. This was Blondell's first feature film and though her part is small, she steals the show. Stone is fine, and Merrill, who has limited screen time, does an acceptable job as the slick working-class boyfriend who we just know isn't right for our heroine. Mackaill is only so-so, especially in the presence of Blondell who could have done the part much better. Mackaill's idea of showing any emotion seems to be looking off longingly into the distance. Aside from the weak lead performance, the other problem is that no one seems to really be in love. Though we're rooting for Stone and Mackaill, their potential coupling at the end feels like a convenient arrangement rather than a love match. [TCM]

Thursday, February 11, 2010


While watching this movie, I had a minor epiphany: I think some people are movie buffs and some are film buffs. Movie buffs are people who love movies of all kinds, mostly for sheer entertainment. Film buffs are people who love certain kinds of movies, or who love to think about and study movies. This is a film buff movie which would be perfect for showing to a film class--it has lots going on stylistically, not to mention a plot that has some elements in common with the recent THE HURT LOCKER--but not one I'm sure the average 21st century movie fan would enjoy. In England during WWII, David Farrar (in black at left) is a member of a weapons research group which seems to operate on the fringe of the official military. While the men (called "the back room boys" for their cramped quarters) are helping to evaluate a new kind of gun, they are also attempting to figure out what's going on with a new German booby-trap bomb which falls to earth in one piece, but later explodes when touched, killing mostly civilians and children. Farrar is in danger of becoming an alcoholic wreck, mostly due to his inability to come to terms with his war wound, a blown-off foot which has been replaced with an artificial one, and that is messing up his relationship with his live-in lover (Kathleen Byron) who is also a secretary where he works. His work and love lives go careening off the tracks until he thinks he can find redemption by cracking the secret of the German bomb, even though another "back room boy" has already been killed trying.

This Michael Powell film is beautifully photographed in a mix of styles: a lot of film noir angles and lighting, mostly naturalistic shooting in outdoor scenes, and a strange and not completely successful nightmare sequence right out of Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND. The bomb plot and the romance plot play out like two separate strands for most of the film's running time, though even when the narrative bogs down a bit, there is always something interesting going on visually. Farrar, the hunk who drives the nuns crazy in BLACK NARCISSUS, and Byron (who was one of those nuns) are excellent, and there is good support from a young Cyril Cusack (as a stuttering researcher), Leslie Banks, Jack Hawkins, and Michael Gough. Overall, the film feels very modern with its slow, deliberate pace, attention to everyday details, and the prizing of character before action. [DVD]

Sunday, February 07, 2010


A crazy little B-movie which moves like gangbusters for the first half, then stops dead in its tracks for the last half. Michael Ames is a muckraking reporter who is out to get a crooked politician, but his goons get Ames first, knocking him unconscious, putting him behind a car wheel, soaking him in alcohol to make it seem like he was drunk, and sending the car out into traffic. Three people are killed and Ames is arrested. His cell mate in the county jail (John Harmon) includes him in a breakout plan, but when the guards detain Harmon, Ames escapes on his own, earning Harmon's undying hatred. Ames and his pregnant wife (Julie Bishop) make a run for it, ending up in a small town where a kindly old doctor delivers her baby and gets Ames a job as a reporter for the local paper. Suddenly, it's five years later, and the narrative stops dead in its tracks so their "cute" little daughter (Patty Hale) can sing a clever but irritating song about nursery rhymes at her birthday party. Harmon, now a hobo, passes through their town, recognizes Ames, and tries to blackmail him through his wife, but the movie never recovers from the "cute" interplay between the kid and the doc, and the kid and the butler (Sam McDaniel). The first half feels like a different movie from the second; besides the speedy pace, the first half is full of interesting shots with an almost expressionistic use of shadows. All that vanishes in the pedestrian second half. Throughout, the acting is weak. Ames (who later took the name Tod Andrews) and Bishop are deadly dull, and the only standouts are McDaniel (brother of Hattie McDaniel) and Harmon. It's almost worth seeing for the speedy first half-hour and for Harmon's intense but unshowy performance. During the final hostage-situation shootout, Harmon actually says, "I'm comin' out, coppers, so put those rods away!" [TCM]

Thursday, February 04, 2010


A bland romantic comedy which fits in the screwball "comedy of remarriage" genre but lacks the wit and verve we associate with screwballs. The film, set on the home front during WWII, begins in a divorce court then flashes back to a whirlwind romance between Jean Arthur and solider Lee Bowman. Over four days, the two meet and marry and spend their wedding night together before he is called back to duty. Eighteen months later, Bowman returns home to Arthur, whom he realizes he barely knows, a baby daughter he has never seen, his father-in-law (Charles Coburn), and a rather prim boarder (Phil Brown) who has been chastely helping Arthur with her household and mothering duties. Bowman feels like a stranger and Brown, who doesn't want to get booted out, makes things worse on purpose. After Bowman and Arthur have a fight, they head for divorce court, where the movie began. Coburn talks the judge (Edgar Buchanan) into forcing the two to give their marriage one more chance, so Buchanan sends them back to relive their first weekend together, from their meeting in a waffle shop to buying flowers to their first kiss, all the way up to their marriage by a justice of the peace. The two do thaw a bit, and there is an amusing scene in their adjoining hotel rooms with Charley Grapewin as a nosy bellhop. There is no suspense about how things will end up, so your enjoyment of this film will depend on your enjoyment of the actors. I found little chemistry between Bowman and Arthur, and though I usually like Arthur, I think she's at fault here, seeming to be running at half-speed for most of the movie. This may have been an attempt by Columbia Pictures to reproduce the box-office appeal of THE MORE THE MERRIER, a much better wartime romance with Arthur, Coburn, and Joel McCrea, but it doesn't come close. Brown is a bit awkward in the part of the asexual spoiler; Eddie Bracken could have done more with the role. Grapewin is good, and other fine support comes from Jane Darwell, Grant Mitchell, and Harry Davenport. I would recommend it mostly for fans of the underrated Lee Bowman (pictured above). [TCM]

Monday, February 01, 2010


Maxwell Reed is a man who was blinded in an accident over a year ago and is about to undergo an operation that will restore his sight. He heads out one night to attend a party but gets dropped off at the wrong address, enters an empty house, finds a dead body, and is knocked out by someone, though he manages to keep hold of a ring he found on the floor. After the operation, he tracks his way back to the house to play detective, meets Dinah Sheridan and her father, and discovers that the ring belonged to her brother, a pilot who was recently killed in a plane crash. She, being his twin and feeling an almost psychic connection, doesn't believe he is dead, so she is more than willing to join Reed in his investigation. They enlist the help of the brother's buddy (Patric Doonan), but when Reed meets the brother's navigator, he recognizes the man's voice from the night of the murder and Reed suspects that the brother may indeed still be alive and involved in a smuggling ring.

This is definitely a minor British B-film, with so-so acting and a plot with some loopholes, but Reed and the photography (a vaguely noir style) make it worth seeing. Reed, who was married for a time to Joan Collins, is nice looking and mostly adequate to the undemanding role, though the romance element never quite feels right. The title comes from a plot twist near the end reminiscent of the climax of WAIT UNTIL DARK; when the power goes out, Reed's recent blindness gives him a leg up on the bad guys. That is literally the only surprising element of the otherwise predictable film. I got a chuckle out of an exchange that occurs when Reed returns to the house after his sight has been restored; recognizing by feel a small statue of a lion, he stands there fondling it and when caught by Sheridan, says, "I was admiring the lion." She replies, "I'd have thought you were polishing the lion." Either phrase would make a wonderful euphemism for something impolite. [DVD]