Wednesday, December 29, 2010

LOOT (1970)

Every so often, I see a movie to which description cannot do justice. Sometimes it's a great movie (like 2001: A Space Odyssey), sometimes it's a terrible movie (like Santa Claus vs. the Martians), and sometimes, it's just fuckin' weird. Loot is that third kind of movie. Actually, it's not quite one-of-a kind; it reminds me in its energy and dark humor of THE WRONG BOX, a manic British farce of the Swingin' Sixties era. That movie had a strong cast and some witty dialogue well delivered. This movie falls down on all those counts, even though it's based on a play by the well-regarded Joe Orton. Still, because it's not on home video and showings of it are rare, this is one to catch for lovers of, shall we say, eccentric cinema. I took notes as I watched, but as I look back over them, nothing seems coherent. Still, I'll soldier on:

Hywell Bennett and Roy Holder (above) are friends who often seem to be just on the verge of being lovers, grabbing and hugging and calling each other "Baby." Bennett works for an undertaker. He and his buddy have a 3-way in a hearse with a meter maid. Holder's mother dies and the funeral parlor where her body is housed is next door to a bank. The boys decide to rob the bank (stark naked, for some reason or other) take mom's body out of the coffin, put the loot in, and make a getaway. Of course, it's not that easy. Richard Attenborough shows up as a odd detective in a Hitler mustache, and Lee Remick is the dead mother's sexy nurse. For much of its running time, the movie is a frantic door-slamming farce which takes place in the odd little village hotel that Holder's father (Milo O'Shea) runs, involving hiding and finding the bags of money and the mother's corpse But the more frantic a farce, the more it risks coming off as desperate, and that's exactly what happens here. The director throws everything but the kitchen sink at us and about a third of it is amusing, but the rest just seems strange. The art direction is rather fabulous--every set is garish, largely in tones of purple, yellow and blue, and that's one of the few elements here that works. There are some quotable lines, most likely derived directly from Orton. Holder: "Bury her naked! My mom! It's a Freudian nightmare!!" Attenborough, thinking Holder wants to open the coffin for some hanky panky: "Conjugal rights should stop at the last heartbeat!" Attenborough again: "We only arrest the innocent as a last resort." I liked seeing Bennett who was memorable in THE FAMILY WAY, and O'Shea and Remick are both fine, especially Remick who is tarted up quite nicely, looking like a living sex doll. Attenborough seems uncomfortable, as they all should. You've been warned. [TCM]

Monday, December 27, 2010

YELLOWSTONE (1936)

Young, attractive Judith Barrett arrives for a stay at Yellowstone National Park, and is immediatly hit on by horny, not-so-attractive ranger Henry Hunter. She's there to meet up with her father (Ralph Morgan) whom she thinks has been gallivanting around the globe for 18 years, but we soon find out that he's been in prison all that time for his part in a huge bank robbery, and he's come to the park to claim the loot which he buried there all those years ago. Naturally, it's not going to be that simple: at least two other suspicious fellows (Monroe Owsley and Rollo Lloyd) are tailing Morgan, wanting a share of the money, and a private detective (Alan Hale) is also present on behalf of the bank's insurance company--or so he says. About halfway through the movie, Morgan is killed, his corpse shooting up through a long-dormant geyser. Though he has a bullet in his back, it's determined that he froze to death. As Hale and the cops investigate, Hunter falls under suspicion and, with the help of his slow-minded sidekick (Andy Devine), he has to work to clear himself, if only to stay in Barrett's good graces.

This is a B-movie from a major studio (Universal) but it feels more like a lower-budget Monogram picture: it’s only an hour long, the acting is mediocre, the plotting is not very tight, and background music is used inappropriately. Hunter and Barrett, the romantic leads, are singularly unappealing with zero chemistry, and Devine is damned irritating. That leaves Hale and the slimy Owsley as the most charismatic actors in the movie, and that’s just weird. (I like Alan Hale, but more as background color.) Some of the film's backgrounds were certainly shot at Yellowstone, but most if not all of the actors' scenes look like studio shots. There's potential in the plot, but the uniqueness of the park setting isn't exploited especially well. If Warner Brothers had done this, it would have moved more quickly and had snappier dialogue, and maybe would have had Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan as the main couple, and that would have definitely been worth an hour of my time. There is a song, a lonely cowboy tune called "Joggin' Along," co-written by Frank Loesser, that takes up three minutes, but the other sixty minutes are slow going. [DVD]

Saturday, December 25, 2010

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (1947)

A homeless man (Victor Moore) and his dog sneak into a Fifth Avenue mansion, as they do every November, to spend a warm winter in the empty, boarded-up home of millionaire developer Charles Ruggles, empty because he winters in Virginia. This year, however, Moore winds up with an entire posse; first, he befriends jobless war veteran Don DeFore, who has just been evicted from his apartment because the building's being torn down so Ruggles can build another skyscraper. Next, Ruggles' rebellious daughter (Gale Storm) runs away from boarding school and comes to the mansion to get some clothes and make her own way in the world. When Moore and DeFore catch her and think she's a homeless girl, she plays along, stays in the house with them, and falls for DeFore. Next come two army buddies of DeFore, with wives (and a kid) in tow, who are having difficulty finding housing. Just as this group is getting cozy, Ruggles comes to town to look for his daughter. She talks him into staying at the house and posing as another homeless man so he can check out DeFoe to make sure that he's an OK guy. Somehow, Ruggles' estranged wife (Ann Harding) ends up there, too. The catalyst for the climax is an abandoned Army base that Ruggles is trying to buy for development; DeFore and his friends (who actually have some money, just no place to live) are also bidding for the land for their own development ideas. Who'll get the land? Who'll get the girl? And what will happen when the police finally discover that the mansion isn't empty?

It's getting harder for me to discover new classic Christmas movies. This is one I'd never seen, or even heard of, though the Christmas setting is not particularly emphasized (it's included in a holiday movies boxed set from Warner Home Video). Frank Capra considered filming this script, but he opted for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE instead. Capra would have made Moore more angelic, Ruggles more evil (it's never really established that he's a bad person at all, except that he's rich and divorced), and DeFore and Storm more loveable, and I imagine he would have strengthened the Christmas element. Still, it's a cute little comedy with good performances by Ruggles, Moore and Harding. DeFore (pictured above) tries hard to seem a little quirky (his entire first scene is played out in his underwear, handcuffed to a bed--it's not what you think it is) and Storm is the essence of spunky, but the romantic element winds up seeming beside the point. Alan Hale Jr., Gilligan Island's Skipper, is fun as one of the soldiers. I have a bit of a problem with the romanticization of poverty, something that probably attracted Capra in the beginning--Moore is by default the most noble person in the movie, mostly because he's poor, and also the only character who doesn't really change or wind up with any kind of "reward." Still, the first half-hour, as the characters and situations get spelled out, is fun, and Ruggles is always a joy to watch. [TCM]

Friday, December 24, 2010

THE CHRISTMAS COAL MINE MIRACLE (1977)

It’s Christmas 1951 in the coal mining town of Caufield (named for the rich Scrooge-like owner of the mine). On Christmas Eve morning, a methane explosion occurs in one of the mines. No one is hurt, but an expert says the mine needs to be shut down for 48 hours to be properly rockdusted; Caufield won’t do it, insisting the mine is safe. The men don't want to go back in that night, but Mitchell Ryan (pictured), a respected miner, gets the men to work, though he also decides it’s time to get somed union men in to organize the workers. Sure enough, that night, there's another explosion and a cave-in, trapping Ryan and his men. Will a Christmas miracle save them? (Hint: check the title)

Surprisingly for a Chrismas TV-movie, the holiday aspect is secondary to the rather mild social commentary story of the miners and their families. Ryan is a good man who is caught in the changing times, both as a worker and as a father. Kurt Russell is the boyfriend of Ryan's older daughter (Karen Lamm); he's a pro-union intellectual who wants to get out of the mines and get an education. Lamm wants him to get her pregnant and take her to the big city, but he wants to wait til they’re married and he can provide for her. There’s also a crippled little brother (who, for a Christmas movie, is surprisingly underused) and a neighbor couple--she's pregnant and he's a budding alcoholic. The story is narrated by 13-year-old Melissa Sue Gilbert, the middle child, and she (the actress and the character) is the biggest problem with the movie. We're supposed to find her feisty and admirable, but she just seems abrasive and a little bratty; at one point, feeling like she’s been cheated at the company store, she throws a rock through the store window and it feels like a dumb, unmotivated plot point with no real payoff. Ryan and Russell are both fine, as is Barbara Babcock as the mother. Lamm, who later married Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, retired from acting, and died at 49, overdoes the whiny frustration. Also in the cast are Andrew Prine (as the drunkard) and John Carradine (as Gilbert's grandpa). Though it winds up being filled with clichéd characters and situations, as a holiday movie, it's a little different from the current crop of dumb romances and doltish fantasies. (This was first broadcast as Christmas Miracle in Caufield, USA, but it was released on tape and is being shown on cable under its current title) [FMC]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

MRS. MIRACLE (2009)

I'm about to give up on my annual made-for-TV Christmas movie. They are virtually all romances, which would be fine if all I wanted was a blandly handsome male lead, but I'd really like more than that. This year's film is barely a Christmas movie--it's a matchmaker/Mary Poppins story set against the Christmas holidays. James Van Der Beek is a widower with two incredibly rambunctious kids; the fact he seems oblivious to their behavior is the first plothole; the fact that everyone else sees how rowdy they are but excuses them because their dad is a handsome good guy still in mourning for his dead wife is the second. We see Dad go through a series of housekeepers who quickly lose their cool and quit until, like magic, up pops Doris Roberts, a senior Mary Poppins (her name is Mrs. Merkle but the kids call her Mrs. Miracle) who says she comes from an agency, but isn't really. By the time Dad realizes this, she has becomes firmly established as a good influence on the kids. She also works her magic on Van Der Beek, getting him together with a pretty travel agent (Erin Karpluk) who has her own emotional baggage--her sister ran away with her fiancé many years ago and forgiveness is still not in the cards. Or can Doris Roberts work wonders with her as well?

Well, of course she can. The predictability is part of the charm of these stories, but even so, this one has a paucity of twists and turns with any degree of surprise. Cable TV movies tend to feature actors who are either on their way up or their way down. Van Der Beek is best known for the TV show Dawson's Creek, which I've never seen; in fact, I don't think I'd seen him in anything until now, even though his face is familiar; I suspect he's on his way down, or at least in a holding pattern. Karpluk is a Canadian actress who starred in her own show in Canada, but is still on the way up as far as Hollywood goes. She does a nice job; he sleepwalks through his part, though the two do show some chemistry together. Roberts, who is probably cursing Bette White for coming back and getting all the parts that Roberts wants, also feels a little low energy here, and the is-she-or-isn't-she-magical? part of Mrs. Miracle (the movie is based on novel by Nora Roberts) is too a little sappy for her--she gets an occasional wry line, but mostly is too soft for a good Poppins figure. The wrap-up to the "sisters feuding" storyline is satisfying, but little else is here. [Hallmark Channel]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

FOREIGN AGENT (1942)

A Hollywood studio electrician is found hung in his apartment. Suicide seems the obvious cause, but actually he was killed by some Nazi and Japanese spies who were after the blueprints for an anti-aircraft searchlight filter he was working on for the government. Hiding behind a front group, the North American Peace Organization, the spies spread isolationist propaganda and continue hunting for the filter plans, certain that the electrician's daughter (Gale Storm), a nightclub singer, has them. Meanwhile, her boyfriend (John Shelton) gets a job spying on the spies for a radio commentator, and her roommate and her boyfriend get held up by the spies who think the filter is in her car. And those are just some of the plotlines that get worked into this short, fast-paced B-thriller. There's wiretapping and reverse tapping, fisticuffs, and a song called "Taps for the Japs" before all is said and done. For a low-budget Monogram production, the plethora of plot strands and characters are easy to follow, and even the McGuffin, the light filter, is explained clearly, not that it really needs to be. Aside from Storm, who went on to become a big TV star in the 50's, I didn't recognize many other players here, but Patsy Moran and Lyle Latell are fun as a sidekick couple. An enjoyable wartime spy film that, for the most part, wears its propaganda lightly. [TCM]

Monday, December 13, 2010

WHERE LOVE HAS GONE (1964)

Mike Connors is an architect who, after several tough years, is slowly carving out a successful career; Susan Hayward (at right) is his ex-wife, a noted sculptor but also a spoiled heiress; Bette Davis is Hayward's conniving mother. While in the middle of an important meeting, Connors is called away to help tend to his teenage daughter (Joey Heatherton) who has been charged with killing Hayward's current lover. The act is considered to be justifiable homicide--apparently the lover was engaged in a violent fight with Hayward--but Heatherton is still sent to a home for juvenile delinquents. As Connors tries to reconnect with his daughter, whom he'd seen very little of over the past several years, we get the story of Connors and Hayward in flashbacks: they meet and squabble over the worth of her sculptures, fall in love impulsively, and Davis tries to "buy" Connors into the family. He marries Hayward but refuses Davis's offer of a vice-presidency at the family bank, so Davis manages to stymie all of his attempts at standing alone as an architect. Soon Connors is working for Davis, is miserably unhappy, and starts drinking; meanwhile, Hayward starts in on a series of one-night stands with young gigolos. They divorce and Hayward gets custody of the daughter. Back in the present, Connors finds out that the 15-year-old Heatherton is not a virgin, and had been writing lusty letters to the man she killed--were mom and daughter both sleeping with the same guy?

This glossy, trashy soap opera was based on a Harold Robbins novel, and the murder on which the story centers was based on the real-life incident in which Lana Turner's daughter killed her mother's lover. Connors, however, winds up being the focus of this narrative, even though it's Hayward and Davis who get to chew the scenery and wind up being the only reason to watch this. Connors is serviceable, but a little drab compared to the leading ladies. Heatherton is flat-out terrible, striking a shrill one-note petulance in every scene she's in. DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy in Star Trek) is equally bad as Hayward's agent--he seems to be playing the part as both gay and boring. There is some good campy fun to be had in some of the dialogue: Connors to Hayward: "You're not a woman, you're a disease!"; Hayward to Connors: "You're wallowing in self-pity, booze and recrimination!"; Hayward as her drunken husband tries to initiate sex: "You're not the first today--I'm just getting warmed up!" The ending would be bleak if we really cared about any of these characters. Nice sets and color design. [DVD]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

BEHIND THE MASK (1932)

Jack Holt has a prison breakout planned; fellow prisoner Boris Karloff (pictured with Holt), who is set to be released soon, hooks him up with a dope ring on the outside. Holt gets out and we discover he's actually a federal agent tracking down the crooks. There's a doctor (Claude King) involved, though the Feds have been in contact with him hoping he'll turn informer. King has a daughter (Constance Cummings), whom Holt soon falls for, and a creepy maid who is keeping tabs on him, reporting back to some mysterious boss via a clunky answering machine which records messages on a wax cylinder. There’s also a bearded, heavily-accented doctor (Edward Van Sloan) who recognizes Holt as an agent; he and Karloff plot to get rid of him by sending him on a dope run in a small plane and making sure he doesn't come back alive, but of course Holt is always one up on the bad guys. Turns out Van Sloan is hiding dope in the coffins of people he's killed on the operating table, and there’s a nice creepy scene near the end in which Van Sloan, about to operate on Holt without anesthetic, quotes Nietzsche: "Unendurable pain merges with ecstasy!"

This is basically a fast-moving second feature-thriller with no pretensions to be anything else. I'm not sure what the title refers to; one of the characters actually is someone pretending to be someone else, though there isn't really a mask involved. Holt is OK; he's been growing on me the more I've seen of him; I don’t think he had a large acting range, but he's more than acceptable as a stolid B-movie hero. The romance between Holt and Cummings is perfunctory and goes nowhere. Much of the acting consists of ominous looks and pauses. Edwards, the creepy mannish maid (played, ironically, by Bertha Mann) is unintentionally comic in her over-the-top melodramatics. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

THE MOON IS BLUE (1953)

This stagy romantic comedy in an important landmark in Hollywood history: it was the first mainstream film since 1934 released without a Production Code seal. The problem wasn't just language (words like "mistress" and "virgin") but, I suspect, the very light-heartedness with which the movie treats sex. Architect William Holden, who has just broken up with Dawn Addams, meets young screwball Maggie McNamara at the Empire State Building, and the two spend the rest of the day and evening playing romantic games, mostly at Holden's apartment. She is much more forthright about sexual matters than Holden (or a typical 1950s film audience) is used to, asking if he has a mistress and letting him know right off the bat that she's a virgin. Addams, the ex-, lives a floor above Holden with her father, David Niven, who falls for McNamara and tries to buy her love with a cash loan so she can pay her rent. The three do some witty sparring, with Addams eventually entering the picture, but for all the flirting and innuendo, no virtue is lost, though Holden does get a sock in the jaw from McNamara's father. The next day, Holden proposes to her back at the Empire State Building and she says yes.

Though the situations and dialogue are no longer scandalous, one can still get frissons of delight from some of the mildly naughty exchanges. Early on, in order to "save time," McNamara asks Holden if he has a mistress; he says no, apparently making the claim that he and Addams didn't have sex, but later when he says Addams was "pretty all over," McNamara says, "Then she was your mistress!" No, he insists, claiming "it's sort of high school to have a mistress unless you crave one" (mimicking an earlier line of hers about drinking alcohol). When McNamara asks if it's OK to take off her shoes, Holden says, "Take off anything you like." At one point, Niven announces that he likes "steaks, liquor, and sex--in that order." When Holden worries that McNamara is preoccupied with sex, she replies, "Isn't it better for a girl to be preoccupied with sex than occupied?" Eventually, McNamara is accused of being a "professional virgin," using her virtue as a selling point. And so on. McNamara comes off like a virginal Holly Golightly, though it's unclear how much of her flirty manner is deliberate and how much is accidental. I think we are meant to take her at face value, meaning she's a bit ditzy but intends to be a good girl. Once the action settles in Holden's apartment, we rarely leave there (except for a few scenes at Niven's place) and there is a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings eventually. Holden and Niven are fun, but there is a bit of an off-putting distance to McNamara's performance. Largely the film does hold up after all these years, though it's best appreciated as a period piece. [TCM]

Friday, December 03, 2010

CHASING RAINBOWS (1930)

The romantic trials and tribulations of a traveling musical-comedy troupe over one year's time as they tour in something called "Good-Bye, Broadway." The leading man, Charles King, has a comic-partner act with Bessie Love, who is secretly in love with him and has to suffer through his various romances with leading ladies which always end badly, with King melodramatically threatening suicide each time, to no avail. After his current lover leaves with a rich man, King falls for the replacement star (Nita Martan), who is using him to get a foothold in the theatre world and planning to leave him eventually with her secret lover (Eddie Phillips). Love finds out her plans and tries to warn King, but he marries Martan anyway, leading to unhappiness, another suicide announcement, and a happy ending when he realizes that Love is the gal for him.

At one time, this was a musical, but 15 minutes of production numbers, shot in color, are lost, leaving a couple of songs and the tail end of a big number, "Happy Days Are Here Again," at the beginning of the film. So you wind up with a musical mostly without music, always a somewhat sad affair. King and Love are totally unexceptionable; Love's acting style makes her seem casual and spontaneous but that clashes with the rest of the cast's more traditional style, so it usually feels like Love is in a different movie from everyone else. She and King have little chemistry; the more interesting couple is Martan and Phillips (pictured), though they only have a couple of scenes together. Marie Dressler does her usual bigger-than-life thing, with Polly Moran as her long-suffering assistant. Jack Benny does a more than respectable job as the stage manager, with George K. Arthur as his long-suffering (and effeminate) assistant. The jokes come fast and furious, but few really hit the mark. Interesting for film buffs, but otherwise it can be skipped. [TCM]