Saturday, July 31, 2010


"Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster is perhaps my all-time favorite "old-time" song so I was pleased to run across this biopic of Foster, possibly the most famous American songwriter until Irving Berlin came along. Unfortunately, this is a Poverty-Row studio affair (from Mascot), so its entertainment value today is rather slight, but for film buffs it's interesting as a low-budget version of the kind of glossy musical biographies that MGM and Fox would produce in the 40's. Foster (Douglass Montgomery) grows up in Kentucky, seemingly more comfortable with the house slaves than with his own family. He's dragged away from an all-black church service to be given the bad news that his father wants to send him to Cincinnati to go into business with his brother. He's not happy about this--he wants to write songs--but when he tells his girlfriend Susan not to cry for him, he comes up with a little ditty that becomes "Oh, Susannah." In a three-minute montage, we see that song sweep the world and soon Foster gets chummy with minstrel king Edwin Christy (William Frawley) who pays him to write songs for his group. Foster sells Christy all the rights to "Swanee River" for $500, including the right to claim authorship, and this becomes a trend in Foster's life: he writes popular songs but doesn't have the business sense to become financially independent through music. He marries a girl named Jane who then suddenly decides she's not crazy about living with his family, hence the sale of "Swanee River" so they can move out on their own. Their marriage foundering, Foster begins seeing Susan again until Jane announces she's pregnant. And so it goes: Foster writes songs but can't make enough money to keep his wife happy, keeps pining for Susan, and starts drinking, leading to a sad, untimely death.

Montgomery isn't bad but his range in the film goes from addled-looking to sad to drunk, and back again. The character is not exactly unsympathetic, but we don't see anything beneath the surface to admire or identify with. Evelyn Venable is good as Susan, Joseph Cawthorn is amusing as a mentor of Foster's, but the best performance comes from William Frawley--I like him as Fred Mertz in "I Love Lucy" but I'd never thought much of his movie roles until this one. He steals every scene he's in, which given that he's usually with Montgomery, may not have been hard to do. (BTW, his character's group was the inspiration for the name of the 60's folk group, The New Christy Minstrels, who are still performing today.) What this movie is really lacking, oddly enough, is musical numbers. The tiny budget wouldn't allow for big production numbers, but considering Foster's output, it's rather sad that all we get are abbreviated and lackluster versions of a handful of songs (including "My Old Kentucky Home" and a decent "Beautiful Dreamer"). Fox did a Foster movie with Don Ameche a few years later (SWANEE RIVER), but it seems to have become a rarity. [DVD]

Friday, July 30, 2010


In 1929, just before the crash, reporter Regis Toomey is trying to interview hotshot stock speculator Sidney Blackmer who isn't being very cooperative; Toomey ends up putting words in his mouth, such as "Financial doom is just around the corner… the wolves are gathering for the kill… who's left holding the bag? John W. Public!" (Sound familiar, 21st century viewers?) Blackmer says he can use the fake quotes if he calls a coin toss correctly, and Toomey does. Days later, the crash hits. Soon, two men approach Blackmer, wanting to use him as a front to snatch businesses which are in trouble, putting them into receivership under the respected Blackmer, while the silent partners make money from the deals. (I understood almost none of this scheme, but what's important is that Blackmer, like the two men, is getting rich on the misfortunes of others.) The first business to get this treatment is the Excelsior Hotel; the owner commits suicide by jumping out a window, and his daughter (Martha Sleeper) vows to go after those responsible. She and Toomey work together, and soon she's got a job as Blackmer's secretary and finds evidence that Blackmer's scheme is crooked. What ultimately does Blackmer in, however, isn't so much love of money as love of woman; he has an affair with the wife of the nephew of one of his cohorts, leading to a climax involving a jealous husband with a gun.

This Poverty Row melodrama is notable for a couple of reasons. One is Blackmer's character; though he's the chief villain, he's also got some depth to him, and for much of the film, he is the most sympathetic character on screen (Toomey and Sleeper are too cardboard for much audience identification). He doesn't seem to be truly bad or even particularly greedy; many of his actions are determined by his coin-tossing ritual. Blackmer plays him in a carefully measured fashion, as a mild-mannered but confident man, and we can see the charms he has that even Toomey and Sleeper fall for. The other point of interest is the writing; though the financial plot is convoluted, the dialogue is strong and you can see the writers are reaching for some kind of political or philosophical ideas underneath the melodrama plot. It's not totally successful, but for sub-B film, it's different and worth a look. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


This is the earliest surviving film which features Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. Oland is a little friskier here than in the later films in the series, and the mystery elements, which could get a little convoluted in Cham movies, are easier to follow here. The set-up: an actress (Dorothy Revier) filming a movie in Hawaii in involved in a whirlwind romance with a playboy (William Post Jr.). She wants to marry him but has a dark secret in her past involving the unsolved murder of an actor, and she goes to a trusted mystic (Bela Lugosi) for advice. Just before a dinner party, Revier is found dead in her bedroom and Inspector Chan (Oland) is called in to investigate. Among the suspects: Revier's assistant (Saly Eilers) and her boyfriend (a very young Robert Young), Revier's former husband (Victor Varconi), a beachcombing artist (Murray Kinnel), and a maid and butler (Violet Dunn and Dwight Frye).

This is the only Chan film I've seen so far which is actually set in Hawaii, his home state, and one of the few that shows his many children (in a cute at-home scene). The comic relief here is not a son of Chan's but a bumbling Japanese policeman (Otto Yamaoka) who comes racing into his scenes in hot pursuit of non-existent clues. Oland himself is lighter, in both tone and size, than he would be later (and even loses his temper a time or two), and the movie itself feels lighter on its feet than the later, more formulaic, films. Lugosi, in the same year he did DRACULA, looks quite young and has a fairly substantial part, getting to act as Chan's assistant for a time. Also with C. Henry Gordon and J.M. Kerrigan. Not as slickly made as the later films in the series, but a little less predictable and good fun. [DVD, in the Fox Charlie Chan collection, Vol. 3]

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Imagine the British making an Astaire/Rogers movie, except the leads are a respected character actor not known for singing or dancing and a German actress who never made another film in English. And all on a B-film budget. Actually, it turns out to be a charming little movie, even if the musical aspect of it feels a little half-baked. Grete Mosheim is a young woman who lives with her working-class family and indulges in wistful window-shopping for things well out of her price range. At a car dealership, she makes a big fuss over a white Rolls-Royce which she's told is not for sale as it's just been sold to John Mills, the wealthy son of a musical instrument manufacturer. But Mills, smitten with Mosheim, pretends to be a car salesman and tells her she's won the car in an advertising giveaway. When he finds out she can't drive, he offers to be her chauffeur. Things get more complicated when he learns she works at his dad's factory. Trying to woo Mosheim while keeping his identity a secret, he has his friend (Jack Hobbs) pose as him, but she starts to fall for the friend as romantic games ensue. As in an Astaire/Rogers movie, the two eventually overcome all the mix-ups to fall in love; in the last scene, they leave in their Rolls-Royce, which, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, takes off into the sky! Mills, though not known for romantic leads, can really do no wrong, and though he’s not a slick song-and-dance man, he's charming, and his first number, sung as he dances through the musical instrument factory, is fun. Mosheim is serviceable but can’t quite nail down the effortless whimsy needed for the role (if my paradoxical metaphor makes sense). Robertson Hare plays the older male foil, the Edward Everett Horton character. The title song, played frequently, sounds a lot like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." A pleasant little surprise, and one that gives me even more respect for John Mills. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


In 2nd century Rome, the kindly tailor Androcles is trying to escape a round-up of Christians by Caesar Antoninus, but soldiers catch up with him when he stops to pull a thorn out of a lion's paw; the fierce lion becomes friendly and licks his face in gratitude (and Androcles nicknames him Tommy), but Androcles is captured and labeled a sorcerer for his seemingly unnatural power over the wild beast. He winds up in a group of Christian prisoners being led to sacrifice in the arena; the Roman captain in charge becomes friendly with the lovely young Lavinia and soon they are in love. The Christian Ferrovius, a strong and hot-tempered man, is sent out to be slaughtered by gladiators, but when he kills them all, Caesar is impressed enough to free all the Christians until he is reminded that the bloodthirsty crowds will be disappointed, so he sends Androcles out to be killed by the lions. Of course, the lion he has to face is Tommy and the two wind up dancing before the confused crowd. Ultimately, Androcles and the lion are freed, Ferrovius becomes a member of the guard, and Lavinia and her converted soldier are happy ever after.

This film, adapted from a play by George Bernard Shaw, is a bit odd, being more a piece of ideas about tolerance than an action film or character drama, and its stagy sets give it the look of a TV adaptation (and in fact it was done that way in 1967, with Noel Coward as Caesar). It's rather unusual in that it's one of the few films about Christians and lions that doesn't end in either gloomy tragedy or tragic piety, or both (see THE SIGN OF THE CROSS). The lion is mostly "played by" a real lion, though Alan Young (Androcles) and the lion don't share the same frame very often, and the dance in the arena, though charming, is clearly being done with a man in a lion suit (see picture above). The reasons for watching the film are the occasionally witty dialogue and the acting, especially by Maurice Evans as Caesar and Robert Newton as the strong man. Young, better known on TV as the owner of the talking horse Mr. Ed, has no real comic spark--I hate to say this, but someone like Danny Kaye (not one of my favorites) would have been more interesting. Jean Simmons is fine as Lavinia, and Victor Mature (the soldier) is his usual flat, wooden self. A nice gallery of supporting players includes Elsa Lanchester as Androcles' nasty wife, Reginald Gardiner as a foppish Roman who almost gets his ass whooped by Newton, Gene Lockhart as a lion keeper, and John Hoyt as the head of the Christian hunters. Enjoyable if not compelling, and a rare chance to see Evans, the well-regarded Shakespearean actor who did more work on the stage and TV than in movies. The Criterion print is, of course, beautiful. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A routine romantic slamming-doors farce (with few actual slamming doors) which is just good enough that it makes you wish it were better. The set-up: Betty (who is married to stuffed-shirt Ralph) flirts with Bob at a beach resort; Georgianna (who is Ralph's ex-wife) overhears them planning a rendezvous that night at a nearby mountain cabin and sets in motion a convoluted plan to have the two get stuck overnight at her cabin instead, just to toy with them. Meanwhile, Lawrence and Connie are two high society crooks who steal some gems (including an emerald of Georgianna's), then steal Ralph's car to head off to the mountains. They all wind up at Georgianna's and are forced to adopt new identities: Betty claims to be Bob's wife and Lawrence claims to be Ralph (since he has Ralph's car), which makes Connie, Betty. Georgianna, having a high old time as the only one who knows what's really going on, has invited the real Ralph over for brunch the next morning to catch his wife in her lies. However, she starts to develop feelings for Bob; guess who winds up with whom?

One problem here is that under the Production Code, things can't get as racy as they should--had this been made in the early 30's, it would have been a bit more realistic in its (im)morality, but here, Betty and Bob can't actually spend the night in the same room, let alone in the same bed, so there are some torturous plot devices present to ensure that. The thieves also might have gotten away with their larceny, which they don't here. The acting is OK: Kay Francis (pictured above) and George Brent seem to be having a good time as Georgianna and Bob, and John Eldredge and Claire Dodd are fun as the crooks. Ralph Forbes doesn’t have much to do as Ralph, and Genevieve Tobin is lackluster as Betty (she should be more frivolous). William Austin gets in a good scene or two as Ralph's unlikable (and certainly gay) brother who all along suspects Betty of adultery, and Helen Lowell is dryly amusing as Georgianna's aunt who goes right along with all the charades. It's nice and short, and is recommended mostly for Kay Francis fans. [TCM]

Saturday, July 10, 2010


A British historical film about steamships, co-written by Emeric Pressburger just before he went on to screen immortality in his partnership with Michael Powell. In Liverpool in 1837, the MacIver brothers (Michael Redgrave and Griffith Jones) launch a steamship despite the general belief that use of steamships in transatlantic trade is not feasible; the ship does in fact sink upon launch. Hot-tempered Jones wants to get out of the business but Redgrave gives up his interest in the company and goes to Nova Scotia to consult with Canadian ship magnate Samuel Cunard. He books passage on a ship belonging to their rival, Henry Oscar; it's overcrowded with emigrants and leaves without a full crew, and two months out, they run into a fierce storm and many of the passengers rebel. When the survivors are returned to England, Redgrave punches Oscar out, and almost punches his brother when he finds out that Jones has initiated a merger. Eventually, Redgrave does meet up with Cunard and they win a commission for an Atlantic mail contract. Jones's fiancée (Valerie Hobson) brings the brothers together, professionally at least, but soon she herself splits them apart again when she finds herself falling in love with Redgrave. The film climaxes with a transatlantic race between the steamship Britannia and Oscar's sailing ship the Queen Mary. The MacIvers and Cunard were real people, but the film apparently plays fast and loose with facts. Redgrave and Jones are both quite fine and the storm scenes (there is a second one during the final race) are pulled off nicely. [TCM]

Thursday, July 08, 2010


A cocky reporter (Robert Williams) gets a scoop about a breach of promise scandal involving the son of a wealthy family. The matriarch (Louise Closser Hale) and the family lawyer (Reginald Owen) aren't happy, but when Williams gets hold of some letters of the son's which were being held for blackmail purposes and hands them over to the family, the socialite daughter (Jean Harlow) is grateful and soon she and the reporter are an item, much to the distress of fellow reporter Loretta Young who has the hots for Williams. Soon, despite predictions from his fellow reporters that Harlow will turn Williams into an emasculated "bird in a gilded cage," the two are married and, sure enough, he's miserable as a man who feels he’s kept by his wife and her family. When he finally snaps after being dubbed "Cinderella Man," he leaves Harlow and snuggles up with Young.

I find myself disagreeing with the generally positive critical opinions on this film, an early work by Frank Capra. Williams was a well-regarded stage actor and this was his first leading role, and sadly, his last as he died of peritonitis just days after this film opened. Most critics praise Williams, saying he has a "sleepy-eyed charm" and comes off like a slightly less macho Clark Gable. Well, he is sleepy-eyed, and his role here is similar to the one that Gable played a couple years later for Capra in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, but the comparison that came to me was of a cross between Will Rogers (his casual, stumbling delivery) and Dwight Frye (his looks, or lack thereof). He works well with Harlow, and the scenes in which they are falling in love (or lust, more appropriately) have some heat. But too often, his almost improvised-feeling style doesn't mesh with the rest of the actors. Many critics think Young and Harlow should have switched roles; I actually think Harlow is the best thing in the movie, working against her image (mostly developed later) of a hard-edged, low-class dame; for her part, Young is OK but can't do much with a part that, although it gets her top billing, isn't developed very well. Owen is fun as the stuffed-shirt lawyer, and Halliwell Hobbes has a couple of good moments as the butler. Claud Allister, who usually plays flaming femme idiots, is subdued here as a valet, and Donald Dillaway as Harlow's brother is handsome but has nothing to do. A few scenes are fun, but overall, with the drab lead and a slow pace, this is a Capra that I can't recommend. [TCM]

Sunday, July 04, 2010

TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970)

A friend loaned me these two war films over the Fourth of July weekend and they wound up making an interesting study in contrasts. Both are fairly straightforward big-budget recreations of famous WWII events, both use big chunks of dialogue in a foreign language (with subtitles), and the narratives of both seesaw back and forth between the opposing sides, but the ways in which they differ are worth examining.

TORA! TORA! TORA! looks at the invasion of Pearl Harbor from the viewpoints of the Japanese and the Americans. Strictly speaking, I don't suppose the Americans can be said to have had a "viewpoint" at the time since they were mostly unaware of the plans for the invasion until it was launched--and that word "mostly" is crucial. There is a conspiracy theory out there that says FDR knew about the plans and allowed them to go forth in order to goad America into entering the war, but this isn't seriously mentioned in the film, which implies that our un-preparedness for the Japanese invasion of the Hawaiian naval base on December 7, 1941 was due to a string of errors of judgment and communication. The Japanese were engaged in a war against the Chinese which America opposed and were suffering from American blockades, but according to this film, the decision to attack Pearl Harbor was not unanimously favored among Japanese officers; General Yamamoto was afraid that such a move would force them to take the side of Nazi Germany and he did not want that. Still, the pro-attack side wins out and an ultimatum is ordered to be sent to the White House by Japanese diplomats, though it's not received until after the attack. Coded Japanese messages are broken quickly by the Americans, but not taken seriously enough along the chain of command.

The first half of the film covers the days just before the attack, cutting back and forth between Japan, Hawaii, and Washington (with all Japanese dialogue presented in Japanese with English subtitles); the second half, after an intermission, is a recreation of the attack. The first thing I noticed about the film is that, unlike in most Hollywood war movies, there are no personal stories, no romances, no fictionalized characters to draw attention away from the unfolding of the "true" story. At first, this seemed like a pleasant novelty, a way to make the movie seem more like a documentary, and it was helpful that real historical figures like Admiral Halsey and General George C. Marshall were identified by subtitles. But as the first half dragged on without any character development, it wound up feeling mostly like a lot of exposition, like information being conveyed in a classroom. The acting was OK, but I think the actors (including Martin Balsam and Jason Robards) felt reined in by portraying real people as though they were chess figures being moved around by the forces of history. However, the last hour of the movie, given over to the actual attack, is quite well done, though because we don't get to know any characters very well, sorrow over individual human loss is at a minimum. The effects are excellent, especially given that there was no CGI involved, and many of the ground scenes really give off a "you are there" feeling.

THE LONGEST DAY is the story of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Like TORA!, it presents two different perspectives, the Allies and the Germans (and within the Allies viewpoint, the British and American storylines are kept mostly separate until near the end). It also relies on subtitles for the German speakers and to identify historical figures such as Eisenhower and Rommel. The actual recreation of the storming of the beaches (and the paratroopers activities the night before) is done very well. Unlike TORA!, this film has fictional characters whom we meet and learn a bit about, so we have some emotional investment in them as people. Unfortunately, this winds up being a bit of a liability as there just too many characters introduced. Many if not most of them only have one or two scenes, and the fact that a star-studded cast is used (over 20 "name" actors including Sean Connery, Roddy McDowell, Rod Steiger, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, and John Wayne) is a bit distracting. Instead of caring about them as characters, we're busy waiting for the next celebrity to pop up. There's also the overly-dramatic dialogue, reminiscent of movies of the 30s and 40s. For example, when Richard Burton enters a mess hall in a dazed state and is asked by someone if he knows the whereabouts of another pilot, Burton replies, "Yes… (long dramatic pause) … He's at the bottom of the Channel."

Still, once you get used to this, the action moves along nicely and the production values are quite good. John Wayne is basically playing John Wayne, at which he excels. Richard Beymer, the romantic lead in WEST SIDE STORY (pictured with Richard Burton), is almost laughably bad as a cocky young soldier, but he gets a good scene at the end when, lost and alone in the French countryside, he stumbles across Burton, who's alive and who has killed a German sniper but who has been seriously wounded in the leg. Burton gets what might be seen as the "punch line" of the movie when he says to Beymer, "He's dead, I'm crippled, you're lost. Do you suppose war is always like this?" Though the beach landing scenes are not nearly as impressive those in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN over 30 years later, they look real enough, and the tracking shots following the soldiers out of the boats through the water to the beach are effective. My favorite parts of the film follow the French Resistance members in the villages and the Allied paratroopers who parachute in the night before, with a particularly good scene showing the invasion of the village of Sainte-Mare-Eglise.

The other thing to consider is that this film was actually made first, in 1962, near the end of the classic Hollywood era. It was likely the first epic war film (in terms of money spent, actors and resources used, and length--almost three hours), coming as it did after a long series of war movies that focused on small groups of men in smaller, more intimate circumstances, and it set up the formula that TORA! TORA! TORA! used eight years later. I reviewed them in reverse order because that's how I watched them. Even though the later film had better effects and cinematography (and color), it’s the earlier black & white film I think I'd return to first, as it did a better job of engaging the emotions, and making the agonies and rewards of war more understandable. Still, both are worth seeing. [DVD]

Saturday, July 03, 2010


Someday I may be ready to write about a Mae West movie or a W. C Fields movie, but for some reason, these two stars are problematic figures for me. I like their movies, but despite their mass appeal in the 30's, I think they don’t translate well to today's viewers. Both performers had strongly etched personas (bad girl with a heart of gold & nasty crank with a heart of stone) and both could be quite funny, but their movies are erratically paced; his pay little attention to narrative and hers pay too much. Unfortunately, this film, the only one they made together, has most of their weaknesses and few of their strengths. The saucy West has been thrown out of town for being suspected of carrying on with a bandit; on the train out of town, she meets up with Fields, carrying a big bag of money, and marries him to get respectable. What Fields doesn't know is that the minister is a fake and they aren't really married, so West keeps avoiding him, especially in the bedroom, and continues to dally with other men. The plot gets sillier and more incoherent, but the movie is too heavily plotted to ignore it. Both West and Fields get some good moments, though rarely with each other. Margaret Hamilton steals her scenes doing a variation on her uptight Elmira Gulch character from OZ. Some of the better lines: Man: "I heard you buried your wife"; Fields: "I had to--she died"; Fields, apropos of nothing, "Did you ever kick a woman in the midriff?"; When a judge asks West if she's showing contempt for the court, she replies, "No, I’m doing my best to hide it." Not terrible but disappointing, given the one-time superstar pairing. [DVD]