Thursday, April 29, 2010


Lionel Barrymore is Peter Grimm, an old man who, if not quite cantankerous, is very opinionated and actively meddles in the lives of his relatives, who nevertheless like and respect him. He is the owner of a nursery and seed business which he wants to pass down to his nephew Fred; he also wants his ward Kitty (Helen Mack) to marry Fred, not noticing two important things: 1) Fred is a jerk; 2) Kitty is in love with Grimm's loyal secretary James (James Bush). Two other important members of Grimm's circle are young William (George Breakston), the sickly grandson of Grimm's cook, and Grimm's doctor (Edward Ellis), who keeps holding séances even though they never work out. Still, Grimm and the doc make a deal that the first one to die will try to contact the other from the other side. One day, just after Kitty has promised Grimm that she'll marry Fred, Grimm drops dead and does, in fact, return to his family, albeit as a ghost that none of them can see or hear. He sees that Kitty loves James, and that Fred is about to close a deal to sell Grimm's business to a rival, so he sets out not only to contact the doc, but also to straighten everything else out somehow.

The appeal to the viewer of this gentle afterlife fantasy may depend on his or her tolerance for Lionel Barrymore. Generally, I like him, especially in sly granddad roles like this, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and ON BORROWED TIME (which is similar to this film, especially toward the end), though he does have a tendency toward taking center stage and not giving it up. Here, in an RKO B-film, he's surrounded by actors who, for the most part, just give up and let Barrymore reign supreme. Ellis is good as is the 15-year-old Breakston who almost gets to steal the final scene from Barrymore. When Barrymore comes back as a ghost, his onscreen image is blurred (see picture above); an interesting effect, though one that is a bit creepy at times since we can't see his facial features. Donald Meek and Ethel Griffies are effective in smaller supporting roles. [TCM]

Monday, April 26, 2010


Intense, sexually charged western with almost psychedelic colors and oddly stylized performances. It's entertaining, but it feels a little like work to get through it. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a rough-and-tough saloon/casino keeper whose establishment is almost literally on the edge of nowhere—there's a town nearby though we never see much of it, and Vienna is holding on until the railroad comes through. Though she hangs out with a shady character known as the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), she's been holding a torch for Johnny (Sterling Hayden, pictured with Crawford), a former gunslinger who now carries a guitar, and when he strolls into the saloon during a duststorm, she agrees to hire him. Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) leads a group of ranchers who don't want the railroad and don't like Vienna's plans—and Emma in particular hates Vienna because she thinks Vienna and the Kid were responsible for her brother's death in a robbery. (Emma calls Vienna a "railroad tramp," but Vienna, standing on the staircase, replies, "Down there, I sell whiskey and cards; all you can buy up those stairs is a bullet in the head.") A tangle of events, including a robbery and a lynching, lead to a tense final confrontation between Vienna and Emma.

Most critics begin discussions of this film by noting two important characteristics: its gender-bending dynamics and its camp atmosphere. The fact that the two strongest characters are women and the men are relatively weak is unusual for the era and for the genre, but today’s viewers won’t be as startled by these role-reversals. I'm not sure the word "camp" is the right one to use here, but there is definitely a homoerotic tinge to the proceedings; both Vienna and Emma dress like men, and one of Vienna's employees says, “She thinks like [a man], acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not." Emma pretty clearly has a love/hate thing going with Vienna, and the intensity of their dialogue is probably why the camp label has stuck. Actually, much of the dialogue is delivered in an exaggerated, mannered fashion, and that along with the artificial look of the sets and the saturated color scheme makes the entire movie feel stagy, not necessarily a bad thing. The film is frequently read as an allegory for the McCarthy era; young Turkey (Ben Cooper) is forced into a "naming names" situation and he lies and gives up names in hopes of avoiding a lynching. Both leading men are basically supporting characters, and both are a little sexy in their relative passivity. Ward Bond is an ally of Emma's, and Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine also appear. I said at the beginning that it felt like work to get through this, but it's worth it, and a second viewing will make you appreciate it even more. [TCM]

Saturday, April 24, 2010


One moonlit night during the Nazi invasion of Poland, Anton Walbrook, a fighter pilot and famous concert pianist, on a break after nine straight hours in the air, wanders though the ruins, enters an empty house, and begins playing the piano. An American reporter (Sally Gray) finds him and they fall in love as the bombs fall outside. With defeat around the corner, Walbrook and his buddy (Derrick de Marney) are sent to Romania while the rest of his squadron go on one last hopeless mission. Months later, in New York on a tour, Walbrook meets up with Gray and they begin an affair which leads to marriage, but when de Marney decides to head off to England to join the RAF, Gray, knowing Walbrook will want to go, tries to engineer things so he won't. Of course, it doesn't work and she threatens to divorce him if he leaves. He leaves. She stews. During an air battle, Walbrook's gun gets stuck and he crashes in a German plane. He survives but winds up in an asylum with severe amnesia. Can the presence of a piano and his wife help bring him back to normal?

Though made before the American entrance into the war, this is not so much a typical WWII propaganda film as a wartime romance with the added angles of classical music and amnesia. Walbrook is good but has very little chemistry with Gray (who despite supposedly being an American has a British accent); when they kiss, it's like they're both afraid the other will have garlic breath. The story is told in flashback, opening with Walbrook plunking tunelessly at the piano, Gray sitting patiently with him in his room, and doctors and nurses tutting about the tragedy of the great pianist; when one nurse says he's lucky to be alive, another responds, "What's the good of being alive if you don't know who you are?" That's an interesting philosophical conundrum but it's not really explored here. Instead, after a nicely atmospheric opening to the flashback (the moonlit night, the piano, the bombs), the film becomes a routine melodrama that trudges through its predictable steps. De Marney steals scenes from the low-key Walbrook, and if you keep your eyes open, you'll recognize Michael Rennie in a tiny role. Richard Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto," written for this film, became a popular concert piece, and Chopin's "Polonaise" is used throughout. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


This is an edited version (cut by almost 30 minutes) of a British film called THE WAY AHEAD, which despite coming out near the end of WWII, was mostly intended as a propaganda film about the training of the British soldier. First is a series of short vignettes showing how the run-up to the war inconveniences the average citizen. We then follow a group of men who answer the call to beef up the army in the early days of the war; we see them in their last days as civilians, going through an average day, and later making fun of a military man at a train station; then they're green recruits who discover that the guy they almost picked a fight with is their drill sergeant. After the men deliberately get themselves "killed" during war games so they can go back to the barracks and relax, they get a dressing-down from their generally good-natured lieutenant (David Niven), and they start to shape up, helped by the gentle attentions of the wife of their commanding officer who runs a canteen for the soldiers. When the battalion gets called into action, their trial by fire is literally that as their ship is torpedoed and catches on fire. We last see them fighting the Nazis in Egypt (with a young Peter Ustinov, who co-wrote the screenplay, as an unhappy French shopkeeper). As near as I could tell, none of the nine main characters gets killed, but the film ends in mid-battle. Some critics prefer the last half of this film, which admittedly has more action, but I found the first half to be compelling in its smaller moments, and the cast is quite good. Among the standouts are Stanley Holloway (crusty older guy), Jimmy Hanley (sweet young guy), Raymond Huntley (a sensitive type), and James Donald (the handsome one). This American version suffers from some abrupt edits, and a ponderous introductory narration. [TCM]

Saturday, April 17, 2010


During a vicious heat wave, office drone Chester Morris is desperate to take his wife and child on vacation; he tries to get a salary advance but can't, so he turns to a loan shark (Leo Carillo) who gives him $50.00 for the vacation but charges him 10 bucks a week interest. When a promised raise at work doesn’t come through, Morris is left in debt to Carillo and his goons. He tries to go to the cops but the thugs threaten his family, and after he steals from the office's petty cash fund, he's fired even though he returns the money. The DA (Thomas Mitchell) knows about the gang but can't go after them unless someone steps up to testify. Will Morris be the one to break up Carillo's operation? This is the kind of hard-luck B-melodrama that Warner Brothers was churning out like crazy in the early years of the depression, but this one from Columbia must have seemed old-fashioned by 1937. Morris tries hard, but "family man" is not his strength. The acting overall is not very good, but weak writing may be part of the problem; the usually reliable Carillo is left spouting exposition every 10 minutes or so, and Helen Mack as Morris' wife has little to do except look worried. Mitchell would normally have stolen the show, but he seems aware how far beneath him the material is, so he sleepwalks through it. The memorable Marc Lawrence is one of the thugs. [TCM]

Thursday, April 15, 2010


A troupe of dancing girls including sweet, young Maureen O'Hara and saucy, experienced Lucille Ball gets stuck in Akron, Ohio when the nightclub where they're performing is closed in a gambling raid. A wealthy playboy (Louis Hayward) helps them collect some money from the customers to cover their wages, and one by one they make their way back to New York City and Madame Lydia (Maria Ouspenskaya) who is having trouble getting the girls another booking. O'Hara desperately wants to be a ballerina and Ouspenskaya helps her get an audition with impresario Ralph Bellamy, but on their way to the appointment, the old lady is hit by a car and killed. By the time O'Hara tries to see Bellamy again, her audition has been forgotten (though Bellamy flirts with her in the rain, not knowing who she is). In the meantime, Ball, using the name Tiger Lily White, has hit it big as a burlesque queen; she gets O'Hara a job doing a ballet number intended as a comic palate cleanser between strip acts. O'Hara gets booed and heckled, but the bit is a hit and both women become stars. One night, Hayward pops into the theater and romantic entanglements begin: O'Hara falls for him but he still has ties to his freshly divorced wife, and Ball, who had a one-night stand with him in Akron, is after his money. Bellamy is brought back in to the proceedings and a relatively happy ending occurs for most everyone.

This is an average working-girl vs. gold digger melodrama with a couple of interesting elements. It was directed by Dorothy Arznar, one of the only female directors of the classic movie era. Of course, there are feminist themes if you care to look for them; for me, the most interesting point is that O'Hara and Ball, though at odds for much of the film (and despite a climactic onstage "catfight"), aren't really enemies, just two women doing what they can for themselves and each other to survive in the working world. This is the movie that made me realize that the beautiful O'Hara isn't really a very good actress--she's flat and wooden; somehow in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, it doesn't matter, but it does here. However, Ball (pictured above) is terrific, giving the best performance I've ever seen her give in a movie; she's cocky, sexy, and feels very natural, and she gets some of the best lines. One is her coy admission, "I ain't got an ounce of class, sugar--honest!" Another is when her director sends her on stage saying, "Give 'em all you got!"; her snarled reply, "They couldn't take it!" Ouspenskaya wears a jacket and tie, like the director did in real life, and her car accident is surprisingly explicit for its day. Both male leads are serviceable, but Ball is the real reason to watch this film. [DVD]

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Though the DVD cover might lead one to believe that this is a Technicolor lustfest based on a Tennessee Williams play, it's actually a black & white melodrama (with about as much lust as the 40's Production Code would allow) based on a Chekhov novel. Though the opening is set in post-Revolution 1919 after the aristocrats have lost their lands and their wealth, the bulk of the story, told in flashback, takes place during the summer of 1912 and revolves around a saucy peasant wench (Linda Darnell) and the three men who love her: the respectable judge (George Sanders), the wealthy Count (Edward Everett Horton), and the manager of the Count's properties (Hugo Haas). Darnell, the daughter of a woodsman, longs for a better life, and one afternoon during a summer storm, Horton and Sanders, taking a stroll about Horton's estate, take refuge in a small cottage where they find Darnell napping. Both men take a shine to her, although Sanders is already more-or-less engaged to the daughter of a publisher (Anna Lee). However, the first man to make a move on Darnell is Haas, not rich but a step above peasant status; when he buys her a pair of dress boots, she decides to marry him (even though she finds him repulsive) as her first step toward upward mobility. At her engagement party, she kisses Sanders, full well knowing that Lee is watching from the doorway, and shooting her a bitchslap look the whole time. Lee leaves Sanders, Darnell marries Haas, Sanders carries on an affair with Darnell, and soon Horton is also courting Darnell, begging her to get a divorce and marry him. Things come to a head at an end-of-summer shooting party on Horton's estate: someone gets stabbed, an innocent gets blamed, and the guilty party slinks away into obscurity--until 1919 when justice is finally served.

This early Douglas Sirk movie shows some of his trademark concerns (well-appointed sets, passions both raging and tamped-down), but the real reason to watch is the acting. Darnell, though OK, is the weak link, projecting smoldering sexuality without working up much of a personality. Sanders goes a bit against type, playing down his distant, ironic persona and doing a nice job as a terribly conflicted man, good but weak--I think this is the first time I've seen Sanders play a character I thought was actually capable of romantic love. Haas, who went on to become a cult B-film director, is also fine as the poor cuckold, but best of all is Horton, who manages to take his fussy, befuddled film persona from the 30's Astaire/Rogers movies and smooth off the edges to fit believably into this tempestuous Russian story. Horton and Sanders, who share quite a bit of screen time, work very well together. Two of the characters die with the phrase "heavenly electricity" on their lips, a reference to the lightning that scares Darnell in the storm scene, though it seems an odd choice for a thematic catchphrase. Many critics dismiss this movie as a weak Hollywood attempt at making a European-style film, but taken on its own terms, I found it quite watchable. [DVD]

Saturday, April 10, 2010


In my ninth year of writing blog reviews, I find myself finally wondering how long seemingly interchangeable B-movies about brothers/pilots/racers and their work/war/romantic problems can keep my attention. The answer, I guess, is indefinitely, as long as I keep finding at least some small pleasures in the films. This one is like a benign Frankenstein monster, stitched together from some very familiar plot elements, but still able to generate a thrill or two. At Speed Hardy's Flying Circus, a traveling stunt pilot show, Ralph Bellamy is the boss whose philosophy is that a death during a show is actually good business. Bruce Cabot is Ace, his handsome and likeable buddy who helped Bellamy start the show after the two of them lost their jobs delivering air mail due to some gunrunning they were doing on the side. Arline Judge is Bellamy's wife who does some parachuting, and Eric Linden (pictured) is Cabot's kid brother. Yes, Linden quits college (against Cabot's wishes) to follow in his brother's footsteps, and yes, Judge soon gets the hots for Linden. And don't forget Cliff Edwards, the comic relief drunk pilot (named Screwy). There are few surprises along the way (one is Linden and Judge spending a foggy night together at a mountain cabin) but everyone is competent, some of the flying scenes are well executed for a B-movie, and Bellamy's plan to get rid of Linden provides a nice climax. I got a chuckle out of Cabot threatening Bellamy with taking Linden out of the show and leaving: "The kid and I are blowin' ya!" Cabot and Linden are nice eye candy, and it was a little strange to see Bellamy playing an out-and-out bad guy. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


This well-regarded British film from director Carol Reed, with a screenplay by Graham Greene, is hard to categorize. It's usually described as a thriller, though a small-scale domestic one, with Hitchcockian touches, but it's also a story of a child completely at sea in a world of adults and how he copes and learns (or fails to). 9-year-old Bobby Henrey is the son of the French ambassador to England. Generally ignored (benignly) by his parents, he has bonded with the butler (Ralph Richardson) who has become his buddy, to the chagrin of the head maid, Richardson's shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel). With his mother ill overseas and his father off to attend to her, Henrey runs wild in the huge embassy mansion with only his pet snake to occupy his time--and we know early on that the snake's time is marked as Dresdel hates it and keeps demanding that the boy get rid of it. One afternoon, in search of adventure, Henrey sneaks out of the house to follow Richardson to a café where he is in intense conversation with a young woman (Michele Morgan) who is a part-time maid at the embassy. We know right away that she is his lover, though Richardson tells the boy (in one in a series of lies that wind up backfiring) that she is his niece. Later, Dresdel finds out about the rendezvous and says she's leaving town to visit a relative, though actually she sticks around and catches Richardson and Morgan spending a stolen day together. That night, Dresdel and Richardson argue at the top of the huge staircase. When Richardson goes back to his bedroom to be with Morgan, Dresdel tries to spy on them and accidentally falls down the stairs to her death. Henrey, thinking that Richardson killed his wife, tries to cover for him when the police arrive, but he only makes things worse and Richardson winds up caught in a huge web of lies (both the boy's and his own).

This black and white film is beautifully shot, making wonderful use of large, nearly empty interiors--the two visual high points of the film are a wild hide-and-seek game in the dark house just before Dresdel shows up to put a damper on things, and a noirish scene in which the scared boy goes running through the night streets of London after Dresdel's death. Many critics give young Henrey high praise, though my reaction is more mixed--admittedly, my problem has more to do with the fact that much of his dialogue was obviously post-dubbed, a pet peeve of mine. Still, I doubt that any other young actor could have done much better with such a demanding role, and Richardson more than makes up for any of Henrey's faults with an excellent underplayed performance that makes us believe in the solid and unsentimental bond between the two. Dresdel, who I'd never heard of before this, is just as good in fleshing out her nasty, unstable character. There's a fun scene in the police station involving a saucy hooker played by Dora Bryan, The somewhat humorous ending is a bit strange, though satisfying. Ultimately, I think this film is a bit overrated, but it is still well worth catching. The Criterion disc picture is gorgeous. [DVD]

Sunday, April 04, 2010


Most of my knowledge of British history ("Cromwell, Robin Hood, Jack the Ripper," to quote Katharine Hepburn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) comes from the movies. Here's what this movie--more focused and detailed than Charles Laughton's earlier film about the monarch--tells me about the early years of Henry VIII (Richard Burton): He was forced into a politically advantageous marriage with the Spanish Catherine of Aragon; she bears him a daughter but no sons (they are all stillborn), and the main motivational force in his life seems to the desire for a male heir. Though he has adulterous affairs, any progeny from those would be "bastards" and not eligible for the throne. When he tires of his latest mistress, Mary Boleyn, he chases after her younger sister Anne (Genevieve Bujold); she gives him a hard time but Henry wears her down until she finally agrees to have sex with him if he can get a divorce from Catherine and marry her--so that her children will be legitimate. Of course, the Pope isn't happy about the divorce, and when Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Qualye) can't broker a deal, Henry's sly advisor Cromwell (John Colicos) talks the King into splitting with Rome and essentially starting a whole new church, all for the sake of a potential male heir. Henry marries Anne (whom the people consider not a real queen but an ambitious whore) and they're happy for a short time, but when she bears him a daughter and then a stillborn son, the handwriting is on the wall--the thousand days of the title is how long she was Queen.

For better or worse, they don't make movies like this anymore. It's typical of the 50's and 60's Hollywood historical epic in that it has lots of public pomp, private scandal, colorful costumes, and elaborate sets, and has a bloated running time (at 145 minutes, it should be no longer than 2 hours). But this is a notch above the average, mostly due to fine acting all around. Burton would seem to have been born to play Henry, and he actually underplays the role a bit, which is all to the good. He's a rogue and a bastard, but he comes off as a flesh-and-blood person. The lovely Bujold, in her first starring role, is every bit Burton's equal; her only weak moment is when she suddenly professes to be honestly in love with Henry, and that is the fault of the writers (it's based on a Maxwell Anderson play). Just as good are Quayle as Wolsey (though he gets sick and dies offscreen halfway through) and Colicos as Cromwell--early on, they function together almost as a Greek chorus, providing commentary and foreshadowing. For its day, just a couple of years after the end of the Production Code, it has some surprisingly frank dialogue about adultery, incest, and sexual behavior. It's also lovely to look at. I guess I developed a taste for this kind of movie after having seen A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS in a theater when I was 11--and in fact, Thomas More, the subject of that movie, is a minor character here. Nowadays, this kind of movie would have less attention to detail and a murky colorless look, so all the more reason to enjoy the gorgeous print on the current Universal DVD.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


Four middle-aged men arrange some time away from their jobs and families to have a "gastronomical seminar" (one of the four is a famous chef) which actually amounts to an orgy of eating. Somewhere along the way, one of the men hires a few whores, since just the food isn’t enough for a real orgy. When a schoolteacher happens onto the property, a big house in a Paris suburb, she gets invited to join in. Soon it becomes obvious that the men intend to eat themselves to death, which they do. The women, being smarter, do not. That's about it. When this came out, it was rated X and caused an art-house sensation. Though the current disc bears an NC-17 rating, I think if it were re-rated today, it would be an R. There is nudity and some simulated sex, but most of the "rough stuff" here is scatological; lots of farting, a little vomiting, and an exploding toilet that sends a fountain of shit cascading through the house. The gorging scenes do tend to put the viewer off his feed, though nothing in the movie made me want to give up big meals or desserts. Most critics mention that the four men go away with the intention of committing suicide via gluttony, but if it's ever explicitly stated in the dialogue, I never caught it—though it's possible I missed something as the 2-hour movie is slow and I found my attention wandering at times (frankly, a little more sex might have kept me interested). The men are played by major European stars, such as Marcello Mastroianni and Ugo Tognazzi (the gay father in the original LA CAGE AUX FOLLES), but let's just say their acting chops aren't exactly tested here. [DVD]