Tuesday, June 29, 2010

ATHENA (1954)

One of MGM's minor musicals from a fallow period for the Hollywood musical, between SINGIN' IN THE RAIN ('52) and WEST SIDE STORY ('60). Adam Shaw (Edmund Purdom) is a young, blandly handsome lawyer who is running for Congress (despite having not a shred of charisma); his handlers want him to get married to be more palatable to the voters and to seem less youthful (one says, "Nothing ages a man like marriage"). Shaw has a rich but blah fiancée, but when he meets the eccentric but wholesome and charming Athena Mulvain (Jane Powell), we know she'll be the one, because in the movies, 1) wholesome always beats rich, and 2) opposites attract. The Mulvains (Ulysses, his wife Salome, and their seven granddaughters) run a health food company and are fanatics about vegetarianism and exercise, and Ulysses, despite being in his 70's, still does gymnastics and is training men (including Steve Reeves) for the Mr. Universe contest. Along with the Adam/Athena romance, we get supporting cast love between Shaw's army buddy Johnny, a Sinatra-ish singer (Vic Damone) and Minerva Mulvain (Debbie Reynolds). All ends well, of course, though the obstacles in the way of true love seem particularly far-fetched and forced. The songs and production number stagings are unmemorable, but the look is glossy and the supporting performances carry the picture: Purdom is a big, handsome block of wood, and Powell seems to be trying too hard to be bubbly and kooky; Reynolds and Damone are far better--and probably should have had the leads. Louis Calhern does a nice job as the nutty patriarch. Another plus is the presence of lots of muscle boys, often shirtless. A cute movie with miscast leads. [TCM]

Saturday, June 26, 2010


The Slattery of the title is played by Richard Widmark; he's a pilot who, during the war, single-handedly shot down a number of Japanese forces during a battle, saving many Americans, including his buddy John Russell. However, because his actions couldn't be officially verified, he was never recognized as a hero. Years later, Widmark is working in Miami as a private pilot for the shady boss of a candy company, flying him on drug smuggling trips, and he is carrying on an affair with the boss's secretary (Veronica Lake), who has become an addict. When Widmark runs into Russell, he starts an affair with Russell's wife (Linda Darnell) who was an old flame of Widmark's. Things start to fall apart when the smuggling candy-maker dies of a heart attack, Lake collapses and needs rehab, and Russell takes to drinking. In the middle of a hurricane which may be heading toward Miami, Russell, who works for the Weather Service, gets a call to fly into the eye to gather important information on the hurricane's path. Because Russell is drunk and could get court-martialed, Widmark knocks him out and takes his place, using his own un-stormworthy plane. Did I mention that the Navy suddenly decided it had the evidence it needed to belatedly award Widmark the Navy Cross?

This heavily plotted melodrama, co-written and later novelized by Herman Wouk, is more complex than the above summary shows, as the bulk of the story is told in flashback, with many of the details emerging slowly over the film’s running time; the movie begins with Widmark flying into the hurricane, and as his plane is battered about, he remembers the past events of his life. The scenes of the storm are impressive, and the acting is generally good. Widmark is fine as usual, Russell is as handsome and stoic as he needs to be, and Darnell, never a critic's darling, is solid, though Lake is rather lifeless, which makes the revelation that she's a hophead especially surprising. Gary Merrill appears in one of his first credited film roles. Despite being made during the Production Code years, the movie seems unusually lax in its moral messages: no bones are made of Widmark and Lake's relationship (I had assumed for the first part of the film that they were married), nor of Widmark and Darnell's; the drug addiction aspect of the plot, a fairly strict no-no under the Code, is somewhat veiled for a while (the viewer has to catch the word "pharmacopsychosis" on a diagnosis pad to figure out why Lake collapses) though we do see Widmark find a package of heroin on his dead boss. Most surprisingly, no one really "pays" for his or her bad behavior; in fact, the ending is rather too nicely wrapped up considering all the mess that's gone before. Not a bad way to spend 90 minutes for fans of melodrama. [FMC]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Not the British Titanic movie from the 50's, but a B-movie comedy/mystery with a screwball tone from Columbia, harmless but hardly essential viewing. Mystery novelist Brian Aherne (left) and his wife Loretta Young move into a quaint little Greenwich Village basement apartment at 13 Gay Street, not realizing that they weren’t expected for another week, and that the apartment used to be a speakeasy in the bad old days. One night, at a restaurant, Aherne overhears a fat man say he's meeting someone in the basement of 13 Gay Street, and despite a case of nerves, the night seems to pass uneventfully for our couple, but the next morning, the fat man winds up naked and dead in their courtyard. Of course, this sets Aherne and Young on the case; it turns out that all the building's tenants were being blackmailed by the dead man. But could it be that the wrong fat man is dead, and the blackmailer is still around? Aherne comes off as a befuddled passive male--perhaps his role model was Cary Grant in BRINGING UP BABY, though he doesn’t have Grant's charisma--but he and Young work up some nice chemistry. The generally solid supporting cast includes Lee Patrick, Sidney Toler (as a cop not unlike Charlie Chan, who Toler was playing over at Fox), Jeff Donnell, and Gale Sondergaard doing her usual sinister lady with regal bearing. Available in the boxed set Icons of Screwball Comedy, Vol. 2. Not quite a screwball, but perfectly acceptable late-show viewing, and I love the cozy apartment set where most of the action takes place. [DVD]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

VICTIM (1961)

Young Peter McEnery (at right) has been embezzling money from his employer in order to pay off a blackmailer who has photos of him in a compromising position with another man. He contacts a number of people for help, but is caught by the police and hangs himself in his jail cell. The other man in the photos is married lawyer Dirk Bogarde, one of the men who turned away McEnery's calls; he discovers there’s a blackmailing ring preying on gay men (in a country, England, and at a time, the early 60s, when homosexual acts were illegal) and is determined to bring those responsible to justice. None of the other men being threatened are willing to go to the police so despite the potential harm to his reputation and career, Bogarde's on his own.

This is reportedly the first movie to use the word "homosexual" in its dialogue, and it's certainly the first to make a sympathetic argument along the lines of "live and let live" for the treatment of gay people. For its time, it was really rather daring, not so much in terms of sexual content (no nudity, no sex talk, and the compromising photos, which we never see, are simply of Bogarde and McEnery talking together, with McEnery in tears) but in characterization. None of the men are played with stereotypical mannerisms (though one is a hairdresser), and Bogarde (at left) gets to play a three-dimensional character. We learn that Bogarde has had yearnings for other men all his life, including a past romance that led to the other man's suicide. His wife (Sylvia Syms) knows about all this and has stuck with him as he has fought his inclinations, though there is a hint that their relationship is no longer physical. The emotional climax of the film is when Bogarde forcefully tells Syms that, even though nothing happened between he and McEnery, he "wanted" the man.

I don’t mean to make this movie sound like it's all just pleading propaganda for the most basic of gay rights. Most of it plays out like a typical urban crime film of the era, with cops and thugs and violence and dark streets. There's even a red herring plotline concerning a blind man and his friend who we assume for a while are the blackmailers. The real crook is described by his assistant as "a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom," though that interesting description is never expanded upon. Bogarde, who was gay but closeted for most of his career, is excellent as a man who has tamped down his feelings for years but who still seems full of passion under the surface. McEnery (who later was Hayley Mills' co-star in Disney’s THE MOON-SPINNERS) is very good in his short amount of screen time, as are Dennis Price and Charles Lloyd-Pack as blackmail victims. Syms doesn't have a lot to do, but holds her own with Bogarde in their climactic confrontation. [TCM]

Friday, June 18, 2010


Palmer, a narcotics agent gets a phone call in the middle of the night from an informant, but when he leaves his house, he is gunned down, and the informant is stabbed to death in an elevator in the Frazee building. Following a lead from the informant’s girlfriend, agent William Henry heads to Tijuana to discover a smuggling operation in which drugs are stashed in the cars of innocent drivers; when the drivers get back to the States, the dealers extract the dope with no one the wiser. Meanwhile, at the Frazee building, an elevator operator who thinks she can identify the killers is the victim of a hit-and-run accident. When the agents suspect that someone with an office in the building is involved, a hidden camera is placed in the elevator and Palmer’s wife (Pamela Blake) volunteers to help by posing as an elevator operator. Sure enough, businessman George Eldredge, who runs a car rental company, is the head of the drug ring. Cat-and-mouse games follow between the agents and the dope dealers.

This Poverty-Row indie is nothing special, but it moves along nicely, and if approached more as a 50’s TV crime show, is moderately entertaining. The agents, including Henry, Robert Shayne, and Lyle Talbot, are a colorless lot, but the bad guys, including Joe Turkel and Bill Edwards, keep things interesting. William Leicester (above) has a memorable moment as a cocky drug dealer who smarts off to Eldredge and pays for it. Also in the cast is Movita, who plays the dead informant’s girlfriend, a singer at a (rather desultory) Tijuana café—she was married for a short time in the 1960’s to Marlon Brando. [TCM]

Monday, June 14, 2010


In a "Mission: Impossible"-style opening, diplomat William Powell is caught stealing secret papers from the French government; the State Department must disavow any knowledge of his actions, so he is deported (on a cattle boat). He takes a job with the desperate, drunken detective Arthur Hohl, who has specialized in low-rent divorce cases. They become "dog stealers," nabbing dogs off the street and returning them to their owners, as though found by chance, for a small reward, but soon Hohl agrees to front for gangster Gordon Westcott and business begins booming. Society woman Margaret Lindsay has been winning too much at Westcott's gambling den and he wants to dig up some dirt on her, so Powell tries to, without quite knowing why, but he falls in love with her. Westcott sets Lindsay up to force her to shoot him in self-defense, though he has the gun loaded with blanks, but Hohl then has Westcott killed for real (by a nervous coke addict). Powell steps in and solves the case, gets his career back on track, and, of course, rights things with Lindsay. This crime caper has some wild plot twists here and there, but is otherwise par for the course. Powell gives the proceedings a touch of class; Lindsay is fine. The references to cocaine use clearly mark this as a pre-Code effort: the word "snowbird" is used to refer to the killer, and Hohl tells his thugs to "lay off that snow." The always amusing Ruth Donnelly has a small role. [TCM]

Friday, June 11, 2010


I guess the generation gap wasn't invented in the 60's for us baby-boomers; this Frank Capra family melodrama (his first talkie, though technically, it's a hybrid with alternating sound and silent sequences) starts with the premise that the younger generation will always try to escape the ways of the older generation, though this film argues that's not always a good thing. At the center of the story is the Goldfish family: Pa, who operates a junk & trinkets cart on the Lower East Side, Ma, their daughter Birdie (who has a crush on the musically talented neighbor boy Eddie) and their son Morris, the one who will exemplify the film's thesis. The prologue, set when the kids are young, shows a resourceful Morris saving the family's meager possessions from a fire for which he was partly responsible. Several years later, Morris (Ricardo Cortez, at right) has established Goldfish & Son, an upscale antique store; his family lives with him in comfort on Fifth Avenue, but Ma (Rosa Rosanova) and Pa (Jean Hersholt) are not happy about Morris's assimilationist ways, especially when he changes his last name to Fish. Birdie (Lina Basquette) and Eddie (Rex Lease) are still an item; Eddie falls in with thieves and becomes a front man for a robbery. He agrees to give himself up, but he marries Birdie first. Morris kicks Birdie out; she has a child and manages to save some money so, when Eddie when is released, they buy a small music store. Ma and Pa don't know what's become of Birdie because Morris won't let them see any of her letters, but Pa soon finds out where she is and goes to find her. In the melodramatic final sequence, Morris, ashamed of his parents looks and ways, refers to them as his servants in front of some of his hoity-toity friends; the two leave the house in the pouring rain vowing not to return, and Pa becomes seriously ill. There is a family reconciliation at Pa's deathbed, but it's too little, too late, and in the last scene, Ma goes to live with Birdie and Eddie, and Morris is left, rich but alone, in his fancy apartment.

Despite the title, this isn't really about young/old generational problems (the young Eddie and Birdie always side with the older generation), but specifically about assimilation and loss of identity, social issues which are still with us. The film would have been more powerful if it had a larger canvas; the focus remains tightly on the five main characters and we rarely see anyone else of consequence. Therefore, both Morris's attempts to rise above his past (and his ethnic background) and Ma & Pa's attempts to escape the future that Morris wants for them remain two-dimensional stories. Though Morris has the most screen time, it is Eddie who winds up the more fleshed-out character; his hopes and failures are clearer and more keenly felt. Still, Cortez commands the screen here and does a good job with an unsympathetic role; he's not evil, just too single-minded in his pursuit of the American dream. Lease (pictured at left) went on to have a substantial career as a supporting player in B-westerns. The switches from silent to sound throughout the film aren't too jarring and the film remains quite watchable today. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


George Raft owns an upscale saloon with a private gambling room in the rear. Joan Bennett is a former chorus girl who has a whirlwind romance with Raft. Lloyd Nolan is Raft's lawyer who falls hard for Bennett. After Raft and Bennett get married, Raft becomes a bigwig in the quasi-legal underworld : he owns businesses, gets a stable of race horses, and even does a little gun-running. A gangster orders a hit on Raft for muscling in on his territory, and Raft barely dodges a bullet in a drive-by shooting. Bennett, afraid for her man's life, talks to Nolan and carries out a rather bizarre plan: she rats on him (anonymously) for income-tax evasion, hoping to get him sent to jail for a year, by which time the heat will be off. Nolan, however, double-crosses them both by handling his case so badly that Raft gets ten years instead of one. Bennett takes an apartment in a house across the bay from Alcatraz, becoming one of a group of gangster wives who live near their husbands, but she soon catches the eye of handsome airplane manufacturer Walter Pidgeon. Nolan tells Raft what Bennett's done, so Raft breaks out of Alcatraz, intending to kill Bennett.

Poor George Raft has a reputation as the man who could have been Bogart; not long after this movie came out, Raft began making a series of bad career choices by turning down the leads in HIGH SIERRA, THE MALTESE FALCON, and most notoriously, CASABLANCA, all films that helped make Humphrey Bogart a superstar. I don't think Raft had the talent or charisma that Bogart had, so it's surely not accurate to say that he could have been the kind of star Bogart was, but it's true that, after signing a Warner Bros. contract in 1939, then turning down the choice roles offered to him, his career went on a slow downward slide, and today he is probably best known for his coin-flipping tic in 1932's SCARFACE (he parodied his own image many years later in SOME LIKE IT HOT). Raft is fine here, not nearly as one-note as he often was, and he works well with Bennett. Pidgeon is wooden, leaving Nolan to give the best performance here, though weak writing leaves some big plotholes and hurts his character--unless I missed something, we never see that Nolan has a crush on Bennett, we're just told about it in retrospect. Gladys George plays a sympathetic Alcatraz wife, but her role is carefully set up only to have no payoff (maybe some of her scenes were cut?). An independent production from Walter Wanger, its relatively low budget shows at times, but there is the minor pleasure of seeing Raft give a strong performance. [TCM]

Sunday, June 06, 2010


A unique and interesting film, though more engrossing intellectually than as a moviegoing experience. Michael Redgrave is a lighthouse keeper on Lake Michigan; his work record is perfect, he doesn't cash his paychecks, and he is resisting going on a month-long leave mandated by management. We discover that he has taken this solitary job as a way of escaping the world; a few years ago, he was a British journalist who was trying to warn an apathetic public and an appeasing government about the dark storms of fascism he saw gathering over Europe. His editor censored his pieces, so he turned to writing books and giving lectures, but the "it won't happen here" mood overwhelmed him and he took this job in America as a way of withdrawing from the horrors he predicted. The lighthouse is near the spot where a ship full of immigrants sank in 1849, with all hands lost. When Redgrave's old friend (James Mason) visits and asks what he does with his time, Redgrave says he found a passenger log for the ship and has been reconstructing their lives in his mind. When Mason leaves, we see the six "characters" interacting around him in storylines he's imagined. Eventually, however, the ship's captain (Finlay Currie) scolds the writer for his mild imaginings and, like Marley's Ghost does with Scrooge in "A Chistmas Carol," Currie takes Redgrave on a ghostly visit to the actual past lives of the immigrants: a working-class man with more children than he can support, a feminist who broke her engagement in order to lead women's rights marches (and who spent time in prison because of the accompanying riots), and the family of a Viennese doctor whose experiments with a new anesthesia have lost him his license. The link Currie points out: all of them went to America to escape their problems, just as Redgrave did. When Redgrave says that they all gave up too soon, they point out to him that he has given up too soon as well. The movie ends with Redgrave alone on the beach, apparently deciding to get back in the fray after all.

Many critics call this a ghost story fantasy, and I guess it does wind up being that, but it's really a WWII anti-isolationist propaganda film, seemingly aimed at American audiences since the British had, by 1942, been fighting Germany for three years and would not seem to need such a philosophical anti-fascist kick in the pants. (The fact that it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1944 would have made its lesson a moot point here as well.) The ghostly element is ambiguous since the characters don't start out as ghosts, but as figments of Redgrave's imagination. In fact, one could interpret almost the entire movie as taking place inside Redgrave's head. But much of the movie does have a moody look, if not exactly ghostly, and in looking backward to "A Christmas Carol" and forward to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, it fits squarely into the genre of story about a person whose life in changed by what seems to be supernatural intervention. Based on a play, much of this feels setbound, though the film is opened up with the visits to the immigrants' homes, and there's a fast-paced montage flashback sequence which shows us Redgrave's backstory which climaxes with Redgrave sitting in a theater watching a newsreel warning about the fascists, then watching the reactions of the audience members who variously sleep or neck or stuff popcorn into their mouths until the Popeye cartoon comes on. Redgrave is excellent, and quite striking looking; Mason is good in a fairly small role; among the "ghosts," the standout is Barbara Mullen as the feminist. The content, tone, and look of this film are all quite different from other movies of the era, though in some ways, it does wind up feeling like a long Twilight Zone episode. Still, I would heartily recommend this film for buffs of WWII propaganda films or fantasies. And, once again, thank you, Turner Classic, for showing this, and thanks to Tivoplex (under "columns" at Box Office Prophets) for alerting me to it. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Sterling Hayden is driving through the desert minding his own business when his car breaks down. At the mechanic's, he meets Ruth Roman who offers to take him on as a driving companion to Santa Fe. When they stop for food, Helen, a woman who has been following them, takes Hayden aside and tells him that Roman has just recently been released from a sanitarium after having had a nervous breakdown. Her doctor (Werner Klemperer) wants Hayden to continue riding with Roman and get her safely to Santa Fe. But soon, when they're stopped by police, Hayden finds out that Roman is wanted for questioning in connection with a murder in California. The cop handcuffs the two together, but Hayden overpowers him and they escape. Roman then tells Hayden all: after the war, when she went back to her native Germany to find her long-lost brother, she was drawn into a plot to smuggle important missile secrets into the U.S. to give to a Prof. Kissel, now teaching at a university in New Mexico. Commies from East Berlin are after her, as are the police and, as it develops, so are the FBI and the CIA. When they get to Santa Fe, the dean of the university disavows any knowledge of Kissel’s presence, despite a newspaper clipping Roman has noting the scientist's recent hiring. As Roman begins to doubt her sanity, Klemperer shows up to take control. Who can we trust? Roman? Klemperer? The CIA? Kissel?

The title of this adequate thriller is, as far as I can tell, a reference not to anything in the film, but to Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS which had a similar plot (innocent man caught up in spy chase while handcuffed to a woman). Hayden and Roman, pictured above, would never get prizes for their acting, but they're believable enough here, especially Hayden (a little bit tough like Robert Mitchum, a little bit laconic like Gary Cooper). In the last half, as plot twists come fast and furious, we are kept nicely off-balance, though if you stop to ask too many questions, plot loopholes galore will crop up, most of which are not wrapped up in the pat ending. [TCM]