Monday, May 31, 2010


Like the 1942 British war drama WENT THE DAY WELL?, this British war drama has a brief opening set after the war even though the war hadn't ended when the film was shot. Also like the 1942 film which was set in a small village, this is largely about a group of people confined to a place: an airfield at Halfpenny Field, from which daily bombing missions into France are run, and a nearby village inn. In 1940, we meet the characters we will follow over the span of the war: Michael Redgrave is an experienced pilot, handsome and dashing, and a bit of a poet; Rosamund John is the innkeeper of the inn whom Redgrave is sweet on; John Mills is a younger pilot whom Redgrave takes under his wing; Renee Asherson is the young girl Mills falls for, but keeps his distance from because of the ever-growing possibility that he'll wind up just another casualty; Joyce Carey is Asherson's snooty, complaining, unlikable aunt who is tolerated by everyone because they feel sorry for Asherson; Trevor Howard is a squadron leader who, a few years on, has to deal with some conflicts between the British men and the American pilots who are stationed there in 1942 and who essentially take command of the field. Redgrave marries John and then is killed, leaving his wife with a new daughter. Married American pilot Douglass Montgomery becomes friendly with John; their relationship is portrayed as almost flirtatious, and when he's told he's going to be sent back to the States to teach new pilots, he has a touching farewell scene with her. Afterward, he decides he wants to stay in England, but soon fate takes a hand and makes his decision for him.

At first, this movie feels like a DAWN PATROL retread, with the pilots heading off on dangerous missions every day, facing the certainty that some of them won't return. But instead of a fatalistic doom-and-gloom mood, this one has a stiff-upper-lip tone of acceptance and perseverance. The characters, their relationships, and their conflicts all feel real, without too much in the way of exaggerated melodrama, and the low-key acting, especially by Mills and John, is superb. The only one who's a little off is the American Montgomery, who seem a little too artificial compared with his British counterparts. The film also features Stanley Holloway, David Tomlinson, and Jean Simmons in a small role as a nightclub singer. The wonderful Basil Radford, known mostly as a comic actor (part of the Caldecott/Charters duo in THE LADY VANISHES and other films) is excellent in a serious role. For a wartime movie, there is surprisingly little "propaganda" present, and there are almost no flying scenes except for some takeoffs and one heroic moment in the sky near the end. An excellent film, too little known and seen. (aka JOHNNY IN THE CLOUDS) [TCM]

Saturday, May 29, 2010


This film was produced during wartime as relatively undisguised propaganda for our allies, the Russians, and was released during some of their fiercest fighting against the Germans. Years later, during the McCarthy anti-Commie era, the movie was disowned by its producer and was sold and re-edited with most of the overt propaganda taken out. Frankly, that might have helped it since the first half-hour is a bit hard to swallow, no matter what your political beliefs. The film begins by setting up a kind of MGM-Andy Hardy version of life in a village of collectivist farmers. We get a handful of remarkably artificial musical numbers featuring everyone singing faux-folksongs (written by Aaron Copland) to celebrate their communal life and the coming of summer. With school letting out, young folks Farley Granger and Anne Baxter hike with some friends to Kiev for vacation, despite rumors of German troop movements, but soon the Nazi air attacks begin. The villagers send their healthiest men up to the hills to engage in guerilla activities, and the rest of the adults stay to defend the town; Granger gets blinded, and Baxter becomes a Russian Paul Revere, riding to the village and yelling, "Burn your houses! The Germans are coming!!" The last half is largely made up of sad but inspiring stories of personal heroism and spectacular warfare scenes.

The first part is pretty dreadful, with the mindlessly happy singing Russian farmers being portrayed like mindlessly happy singing slaves in old Hollywood movies about the South--even old-timers Walter Brennan and Walter Huston have to croak out a song or two. The first invasion sequence is well shot, and Huston mostly keeps his dignity as the village doctor who engages in some interesting philosophical debates with Nazi doctor Erich von Stroheim, leading to a satisfying, if not terribly plausible, ending. Most of the other actors aren't called upon to act so much as smile, suffer, and make speeches, with Brennan and Dana Andrews coming off worst. Baxter and Granger (pictured) just seem like amateurs (and indeed this was Granger's first movie). Jane Withers, coming out of her child-star phase, does a nice job in a scene in which she struggles to find the fortitude to carry out a guerilla attack. Also with Ann Harding, Dean Jagger, and Martin Kosleck. As period propaganda, this is endlessly fascinating, but as entertainment, it's quite dated. [TCM]

Thursday, May 27, 2010


A run-of-the-mill "angel visitation" movie; its main claim to being different is that it is set in the old West. Up in a high-toned bureaucratic Heaven, it is discovered that Duke Byron's name is missing from the Book of Life, meaning the man has no soul (not in a James Brown way, but in an everlasting spirit way), and his proper fate as recorded in the Book of Destiny, and involving marriage to Drusilla, a schoolteacher, may not come to pass. An angel named Mike is sent down to set Duke, a cocky, nasty big shot in a small mining town, on the path to righteousness by getting him together with Drusilla, though he's told he can’t perform any miracles. When Mike first appears, he is mistaken for The Kansas City Kid, a hired assassin, but when he saves Duke's life after the real Kid attacks, Duke takes Mike under his wing and soon the angel is fixing Duke up with Drusilla and attending to a sickly young boy who worships Duke.

This film suffers in comparison to two other angel movies released in the same twelve-month period, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and THE BISHOP'S WIFE. This one is more earthbound, less whimsical and imaginative. The bland Robert Cummings, as Mike, is no match for either Henry Travers or Cary Grant, the angels in the other two films. Brian Donlevy brings some spark to his role as Duke, and makes his gradual transformation to good guy fairly believable. Marjorie Reynolds (the co-singer of "White Christmas" in HOLIDAY INN) matches Cummings for blandness as a supposedly saucy chorus girl. Definitely a lesser, non-essential fantasy film [FMC]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This WWII spy thriller, directed by Billy Wilder and set in a hotel in the middle of a North African desert, is famous for its opening scene: a tank, with a dead soldier protruding from the top, is rolling up and down the dunes. We soon see a few more bodies in the belly of the tank, but it turns out that one of them, British soldier Franchot Tone, is still alive. He manages to get out of the tank and stumble, barely conscious, to the above-mentioned hotel, called the Empress of Britain, where he collapses in the lobby in the presence of the only people left in the hotel (in advance of the German invasion by Rommel): Egyptian hotelkeeper Akim Tamiroff and French chambermaid Anne Baxter, who holds a grudge against the British for the capture of her brother at Dunkirk. Tamiroff hides Tone just as Rommel's men arrive to prepare the hotel to be their headquarters. When Tone decides he wants to stay to assassinate Rommel, he takes on the identity of a hotel waiter who died during a bombing, and whose dead body is still under some rubble in the basement (so of course, we know that body will soon come to light and cause problems). The twist: Tone soon finds out that the man he’s impersonating was actually a German spy, so he has to pretend to be helpful to the Nazis holed up in the hotel while he plots their downfall.

The rest of the film, based on a stage play, consists of the cat-and-mouse games that Tone plays with Rommel (Erich von Stroheim, who steals every scene he's in); instead of killing Rommel, Tone decides to crack the code of the location of the "Five Graves to Cairo," five buried supply sites crucial to the success of the Germans in North Africa. Baxter plays her own little game, flirting with a German officer (Peter Van Eyck, pictured) in hopes that he will free her brother. Would Baxter go so far as to betray Tone? Or will the waiter's semi-buried body betray him first? This is a fun little thriller which would be better known if it had a different lead actor; Tone is OK in light romantic parts, but rises to his level of incompetence here--he is no Bogart, nor an Errol Flynn, and in fact, even a B-actor like James Craig or William Lundigan might have given the role more life. Luckily, the script is strong, and the other actors are fine, not just Stroheim, but the under-rated Tamiroff (who always played swarthy foreigners), the young--only 20--and beautiful Baxter, and the slimy but handsome Van Eyck. This movie has an early version of one of my favorite Billy Wilder lines: In ONE, TWO, THREE, James Cagney says, "I wish I was in hell with my back broken"; here, Tamiroff says the same thing, except wishing he was in a black pit rather than hell. Overall, well worth seeing. [TCM]

Saturday, May 22, 2010

CROONER (1932)

David Manners is the leader of a competent but unexciting dance band who is told that his group doesn't have the "novelty" it takes to break through to big success. One night at the Golden Slipper Café, Manners, who normally plays sax, has to take over singing duties; when his quiet voice can barely be heard above the band, a drunken patron (Guy Kibbee) jokingly hands him a megaphone. When Manners sings through it, the men in the club can't stand him but the women go crazy, and a star is born. Ann Dvorak, Manners' girlfriend, brings her boss, press agent Ken Murray, to the club one night and he agrees to manage the band, getting them a new contract at the Golden Slipper for a lot more money. However, after a short period of success, Manners becomes egotistical and obnoxious; he spends the night with socialite Claire Dodd on her boat, irritating Dvorak, and later in a drunken huff, attacks a heckler who turns out to be a crippled war veteran. Manners hits bottom, leaves the band, and winds up a sax player in a dive club. He soon hears that Dvorak is going to marry Murray; has he learned enough of a lesson to win her back? (If you don't know the answer to that question, you haven't seen enough movies.)

The rise-and-fall story is an old one, but the "crooner" aspect is a relative novelty. A crooner sang popular romantic ballads in a soft, mannered fashion. Bing Crosby was one, and it could be argued that Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé have carried on the tradition, but the megaphone bit is based directly on Rudy Vallée (though Vallée's career, as a singer and an actor, lasted for almost fifty years). I usually like Manners, but he didn’t have a lot of "oomph" and was better in more passive roles; here, he never evinces the energy and drive that his character is clearly supposed to have. Dvorak is also relatively colorless, leaving Murray and Dodd as the most interesting folks on screen. Also noticeable are Hattie McDaniel as a washroom attendant, Miki Morita as a valet Manners acquires during his rise, and J. Carroll Naish as the club owner. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Party girl Barbara Stanwyck, on the run at 4 in the morning from a rowdy admirer, meets rich playboy artist Ralph Graves, himself on the run from his own wild party with which he's become bored. He takes her home and wants to paint her as the personification of "Hope," telling her to "look through the ceiling" to the stars, but it isn't until they're actually on his penthouse balcony looking at that stars that she finds the look he wants. They fall in love but Graves' family objects to her and his mother tries to pay her to leave. After a teary scene, Stanwyck agrees to run off to Havana with Lowell Sherman, an older friend of Graves' but fate intervenes with some help from Stanwyck's roomie (Marie Prevost) and a reasonably happy ending seems in store. This early Frank Capra melodrama has some stylish directorial touches here and there, and Stanwyck and Graves work well together. A rainy night scene in which Graves, to Stanwyck's surprise, does not press his advantage plays out nicely. Prevost provides some snappy comic relief--when Stanwyck tells her she's eating too much, she replies, "You can’t weigh sex appeal." Ironically, in real life Prevost died a few years later of malnutrition after trying to lose weight. [TCM]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

MISTER 880 (1950)

This is one of those movies I'd see listed in TV Guide all the time when I was a kid. The title was different enough to stick in my mind (like SCUDDA-HOO, SCUDDA HAY or PHFFFT) but the plot description didn't make it sound interesting enough to watch. This wound up being pleasant, innocuous, and cute, but nothing to go out of your way to see. On the surface, it sounds like MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET: Edmund Gwenn plays a friendly but eccentric old man who lives in New York and winds up in trouble with the law; a handsome man and attractive woman get mixed up with him; all three are present in a climactic courtroom scene. Here, Gwenn is a junk dealer and counterfeiter who has been getting away with passing ineptly-made one dollar bills (Washington is spelled "Wahsington" on the bill) for years. He's a sweet old man who only does this occasionally when he needs a little cash, but still the Feds want to nail him, and for agent Burt Lancaster, the search becomes an obsession. A break in the case comes when lovely young Dorothy McGuire, a U.N translator who lives in the same apartment building as Gwenn, passes a bill (that, unbeknownst to her, was stuffed in her purse as change by Gwenn) and gets tailed by Lancaster. The two begin dating, and when she finds out what he's up to, she strings him along for a while (referring to a wad of bills as a "boodle of queer") until he fesses up. They begin to work together until she suddenly realizes that the legendary Mister 880 (the number assigned to the case by the Secret Service) is the sweet old geezer who lives upstairs. This is based on a real case which was profiled in the New Yorker, so the realistic ending (there's no magical resolution as when Gwenn played Santa in MIRACLE) is a bit of a bummer. Gwenn is the reason to watch this; his character is almost as spry and sly as his Kris Kringle, though here he looks and acts older and more worn down by life. Lancaster and McGuire strike some nice sparks, though the last 20 minutes or so feel rushed with the characterizations getting short shrift in the end. (Picture from Film Noir Photos) [FMC]

Thursday, May 13, 2010


This interesting, rarely-shown MGM film doesn't exactly feel like a big-studio effort. In narrative structure, it's a bit like a GRAND HOTEL of the air, weaving together the stories of a handful of characters during one night, but dramatically, it's more akin to a play, being largely a series of monologues and two-character conversations with some aerial action scenes scattered throughout. Based on a work by "Little Prince" author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the film is set in the main office of the Trans-Andean European Air Mail Company in Buenos Aires, with all the action taking place on the night that the airline is attempting its first night-flying schedule over the treacherous Andes and through the unpredictable weather along the coast of Brazil. John Barrymore is the tough-as-nails airline director who insists on sticking to the schedules despite reports of fog and storms. He is criticized for his stance, threatening the lives of his pilots just so, in the words of one character, a postcard can get to Paris on Tuesday rather than Thursday, but we know that, at least in one instance, there is more at stake in keeping the delivery timely: a hospital in Rio de Janeiro is desperately waiting for polio serum to arrive from Santiago, Chile to help a very sick child. Playboy Robert Montgomery is the pilot who flies across the Andes from Chile to Argentina. When asked by a young lady why he dresses up to fly, he says, "A gentleman should always be prepared to meet his maker," to which she replies, "You mean whoever makes you in Buenos Aires!" Clark Gable is a pilot whom we never really see outside of his plane and his flight goggles; he and his radio operator run into some very bad weather, unbeknownst to Gable's wife (Helen Hayes), whom we mostly see making dinner for, and fretting over, Gable, who winds up way behind schedule. She tries to get some information, but Barrymore stonewalls her.

The third pilot we follow is happy-go-lucky William Gargan, married to Myrna Loy, though since nothing much happens to him, they both have largely thankless roles. Lionel Barrymore is a plane inspector who serves as a conversational foil for John; Henry Gordon is the head of the airline board who does not see eye to with the director. At an hour into the 90-minute movie, it still feels like the plot hasn't quite kicked in, although we have had several ripely poetic speeches. It's not boring, but it does feel self-consciously arty, with all the good and bad things that label can entail: some big "acting" moments (mostly involving the Barrymores and Helen Hayes), some interesting camerawork (in this case, some very nice shots of planes in the mountains), and a self-important tone. For some reason, this is not on video and as far as I know, has never cropped up on TCM even though as an MGM film, it must be part of their library. It's worth seeing if you get a chance.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


Though not a conventional "screwball comedy," as it lacks serious romance, verbal wit, or the upper class, this B-move is still an enjoyable knockabout farce filled with screwball characters. Joan Blondell and Binnie Barnes are sisters (named Hope and Faith) who work as convention hostesses at a big city hotel. I’m not certain what their duties are, above and beyond making sure that conventioneers have a good time, but they seem to be looked upon with some condemnation by the press, being called a threat to public decency. Just as airline strike negotiations are beginning in a hotel conference room, the arbitrator is discovered dead in his room. Afraid the discovery of the body will spell disaster for the hotel’s reputation, Blondell and Barnes take on the task of hiding it for the time being. Meanwhile, reporter John Howard (who is sweet on Blondell) finds out about the body and, knowing he has the potential for a good story under his nose, tries to outwit the girls and get the body out in the open. To complicate matters: 1) the girls' sister (of course named Charity, played by Janet Blair), who is supposed to be in college, arrives looking for fun and adventure and falls for Howard; 2) the cops, egged on by a high society women's group out to stop any immoral activity on the part of the hostesses, are sniffing around; 3) Eric Blore, a drunken magician from an earlier convention, is roaming the floors looking for someone named Charlie.

I’ve never seen Weekend at Bernie’s but this movie is based on a similar foundation: the locomotion of a dead body by people trying to keep the existence of the corpse a secret. It moves along at a good clip with very little (pardon the pun) dead air between gags. The Blondell/Blair/Howard triangle gets a little old—it's clear that Howard doesn't care a bit for Blair, so we just have to wait for Blondell to realize that in the film's last few minutes—but most everything else works. Blondell (pictured with Howard) bears the brunt of the movie on her capable shoulders. Howard, best known as Katherine Hepburn's stick-in-the-mud fiancé in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, is OK but doesn’t have much spark with Blondell. Robert Benchley shines as the hotel manager, Una O'Connor is a washer woman, and you might recognize Lloyd Bridges and Larry Parks in bits as reporters. Blore doesn’t have much to do, but his character winds up being crucial to the wrap-up. Could be sharper, but overall a fun little surprise from the Columbia Pictures vault. [TCM]

Friday, May 07, 2010


This film, a biopic about William Friese-Greene, a largely forgotten figure in the development of moving pictures, was produced for the Festival of Britian, a sort of World's Fair exhibition intended in part as a post-war pick-me-up for the British. Almost every working actor of any repute in England at the time appears in the film, mostly in cameos. Robert Donat plays Friese-Greene, a photographer who becomes an absent-minded inventor, tinkering in color photography and in the very early stages of moving pictures. Throughout his life, he goes into great debt and ignores the needs of his family. His first wife (Maria Schell) leaves him, and his second wife (Margaret Johnston), with whom he has an amicable separation, complains that his "real life" happened before she met him. He insists on claiming that he invented moving pictures, though because he's not mentioned in any textbooks, his son gets beat up at school for repeating that claim. The man's story is a downbeat one, and to its credit, the movie doesn’t seem to try to sugarcoat it much; it begins on the last day of his life, when, as an ailing and lonely old man, he is about to speak his mind at a British film industry meeting, and the rest of the narrative is comprised of two major flashbacks, the first covering his later years with Johnston and the second of his earlier, slightly happier days which includes his breakthrough in getting a short sequence of moving pictures projected in his basement; he's so excited, he races out into the night streets, dragging a policeman (Laurence Olivier) in to witness his triumph. Sadly, that’s about the peak of his life, as he ignores his photography business, which goes bankrupt, and he loses his family, slowly sliding into obscurity. The character isn't one that the audience can really admire or warm up to, and the whole thing feels too reverent and too trivial at the same time. It is fun to spot the star cameos, which include Richard Attenborough, Glynis Johns, Margaret Rutherford, David Thomlinson, and Peter Ustinov, but overall, it's a rather drab affair. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Walt Disney does a Gothic romance, except instead of stormy nights and gloomy mansions, this one is set on the warm and sunny island of Crete, at a relatively modern hotel. But the real problem here isn't the setting, its the fact that the heroine is a teenage girl. That girl (Hayley Mills) and her aunt (Joan Greenwood) arrive at their hotel, The Moon-Spinners, in the middle of a gala wedding feast only to find their reservations supposedly never got made. The brusque owner (Eli Wallach), who has been acting strangely ever since he returned from a trip to England, clearly wants them to leave, but his sister (Irene Papas) finds them a room. Mills meets handsome Englishman Peter McEnery, who while chastely flirting with Mills is also playing some cat-and-mouse game with Wallach involving something in the nearby Bay of Dolphins--the name of the hotel comes from a myth about being able to find sunken treasure there by the light of the full moon. Sure enough, Wallach is a jewel thief and McEnery is a bank clerk who was blamed for wrongdoing in the recent disappearance of a priceless necklace, and he's hot on Wallach's trail in order to clear his name. Mills is actually OK, but she makes the whole thing feel like a Nancy Drew story, with a hint of Gidget thrown in. McEnery makes a fairly good dashing leading man, but he and Mills have very little chemistry--he's only six years older than her, but the age gap feels much bigger and scuttles any real romance. Wallach doesn't get a chance to do much more than play an average bad guy, but Papas is very good, and two other actors deserve mention: child actor Michael Davis does a nice job as a helpful island boy who gets to say things like "No time make love" whenever Mills and McEnery might have a tender moment tohether, and silent film star Pola Negri steals the show at the climax as a millionaire jewel collector to whom Wallach is trying to sell the jewels. There are scenes here that feel inspired by Hitchcock (such as a dangerous escape from a windmill) but Disney was no Hitchcock—and neither was Disney’s director, James Neilson—just as Mary Stewart, who wrote the novel on which this was based, was no Daphne du Maurier. [DVD]

Saturday, May 01, 2010


Young Herbert Wynn is found dead by his elderly aunt (Elizabeth Patterson) who passes out and needs medical attention. Nurse Joan Blondell, whom we first see complaining to her fellow nurses about the lack of excitement in her life, is assigned to stay at the house to attend to the old lady. Wynn's death is determined to be suicide, but the cop in charge (George Brent) is suspicious and unofficially deputizes Blondell to work on the case. The official theory is that Wynn killed himself and made it look like murder in order to leave his insurance money to his aunt, who has fallen on hard times. Next theory: he was going to fake the suicide so she'd get the money, but someone killed him anyway. Or is it something else entirely? And why does the old aunt want to make out a confidential statement for only her lawyer to read? This is a fairly routine second-feature mystery, enlivened by good chemistry between Blondell and Brent--and Brent was still light on his feet this early in his career before he became too serious and boring. It reminds me of the Nurse Sarah Keate movies of a few years later, though in those films, the nurse was dating the cop; here, it seems strange that Brent would, out of the blue, make Blondell the designated detective. Still, the formula works well enough to keep your interest. Individual sequences, such as the opening, are quite well done, though overall the plot holes are a bit distracting. There are a lot of solid supporting players, most of them skulking suspiciously around the old dark house, such as C. Henry Gordon, John Wray, Holmes Herbert, and Lyle Talbot. Based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. [TCM]