Sunday, November 28, 2010

ON BORROWED TIME (1939)

Prologue: Cedric Hardwicke, a mild-mannered gentleman, hitches a ride with a couple; when the car goes careening off a cliff, only the bodies of the couple are found by police.

Act 1: The elderly Lionel Barrymore and his wife Beulah Bondi live in a small town and have custody of their grandson (Bobs Watson), whose parents were killed in the car crash. The boy loves Barrymore and dislikes his meddlesome maiden aunt whom Barrymore calls a "pismire" (basically, a piss ant). However, Bondi suggests to the aunt that she might be given custody of Watson if anything happens to them. After Barrymore does a good deed, the boy tells him if he makes a wish after doing a good deed, it will come true. The old man wishes that anyone who climbs his beloved apple tree to steal apples would be stuck there until he lets them down. Oddly, the wish seems to come true.

Act 2: Hardwicke appears in Bondi's bedroom; calling himself Mr. Brink, he is Death personified, and he gently takes Bondi with him to her reward, with "Beautiful Dreamer" playing in the background. A little later, when Hardwicke comes to take Barrymore, he tricks Death into climbing the tree, so Death gets stuck up the tree and Barrymore is safe and happy until he realizes that no one on earth is dying. When Watson is tricked into climbing the tree by Death, he falls and is seriously injured, with the doctor saying he doesn’t know why Watson isn’t dead. Barrymore knows, and soon must make a fateful decision.

This is one of those gentle Hollywood fantasies about death, Heaven, and the afterlife that are popular in waves (there was a cluster of them during and right after WWII). Based on a play, the production is stagy and the storyline rather sappy, but the ending is a little surprising in that [SPOILER] both the old man and the boy die, though to cushion the blow, we last see them heading off to heaven to meet Bondi. Barrymore is an actor I appreciated more when I’d only seen him in a handful of roles; the more I see of him, the tireder I get of his homespun scene-stealing antics. Bondi, who was only 50, does a nice job as the sweet-natured matriarch; Watson cries well, but seems to have been tutored in over-the-top sentimental acting by Barrymore. Eily Malyon, who specialized in playing cranky spinsters, is good as the aunt, and other familiar faces include Una Merkel, Henry Travers, and Grant Mitchell. [TCM]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976)

A spaceship has a rough landing on the planet Tem 4; the astronauts are responding to radioed calls for help. A girl dressed like an old West Indian maiden greets them and takes them to meet Ronk, apparently the leader of the Temians, who meets his visitors while sprawled out on a divan. He insists that the distress call must have been a mistake and invites the crew to a "wild midnight party" (pictured) which plays out like BARBARELLA crossed with a soft-core outtake from CALIGULA. Most of the crew, including the leader, Akala, have fun at the party, but what they don't know is that they were all brainwashed by light beams which played on their foreheads. The next day, Akala's lover Suko, who stayed behind in the ship, becomes suspicious when each of them robotically describes the party as "cheerful and fun." He takes a small probe ship out and discovers hundreds of the native people of the planet, the Turi, who have been enslaved by Ronk's people and are stuck working in intolerable conditions, mining a valuable ore which is sent back to Ronk's home planet. It was indeed they who sent the SOS; can Suko get the crew of the Cynro to help liberate the Turi?

This is another East German DEFA production like THE SILENT STAR, though this one is a little less serious and quite a bit weirder in style. The sets are mostly cheap and artificial in a chintzy Thunderbirds style, though still a notch above many Hollywood B-sci-fi films of the era. The wild party is disco/psychedelic (discodelic?), with writhing dancers, flashing lights, and folks dressed in red leather. Guards are decked out in black leather with 70's mustaches and sideburns. The real leader of the Temians isn't Ronk, but a weird dorky guy (known only as The Chief) who looks more like a low-level office bureaucrat than a dictator; we first see him with thinning blue hair and dressed in an sparkly blue jumpsuit (he changes his hair color frequently) playing a strange musical instrument and making scantily-clad women dance to his tempo. He feels an affinity with Akala, and she tries to use this to her advantage to help the Turi. There are even flashes of nudity here and there. It's a weird movie which I can only recommend to lovers of, well, the weird. [DVD]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

THE SILENT STAR (1960)

In Siberia, an extraterrestrial artifact is found to be a recorded message from Venus; when radio signals are sent to the planet, there is no response. Although the translation is incomplete, an international crew (an American physicist, an Indian mathematician, a Chinese translator, a female Japanese doctor, an African technician, etc.) is sent to Venus in a spaceship called the Cosmokrator to find out what's going on. Along the way, the message is discovered to convey plans to attack Earth. However, when the team lands, they find no life except some artificial metallic spiders. It turns out that the Venusians were so warlike, they destroyed each other before they could invade Earth. But the earthlings trigger an automated chain reaction involving a large machine (which reminded me a bit the uncontrollable Doomsday Machine in DR. STRANGELOVE) and a seemingly sentient black sludge which are still guarding the planet, so our crew have a rough time getting back home.

This was produced in the middle of the Cold War by the East German studio DEFA, but its propaganda isn't about Communism as much as about getting along--there is an explicit message at the end about not only the need for international cooperation but also for making progress in space exploration. While the plot has holes and the effects are pretty bad (in weightless conditions, spaceship seat belts dangle in the air on clearly visible wires), the sets and art direction are colorful and imaginative. Weird psychedelic fogs, forests of glass, and the aforementioned robot spiders and icky gunk that tries to eat people are all fairly cool in concept and look. The crew is the most multicultural one ever (even before the term "multicultural" was in wide usage). There are explicit parallels between the Venusian apocalypse and Hiroshima: the Japanese doctor (Yoko Tani) was born just after the bombing, a fact that is brought up occasionally, and the only thing left of the Venusians are burned-in shadows on the wall. There's not a lot of character development among the token cast members. The only ones to stand out much are the widowed doctor (her husband died in an accident on the moon) and the American (Guenther Simon) with whom a romance flares up. She tries to discourage his feelings, telling him, "There's no room for extra baggage on a journey like this," but that doesn't stop him from getting all moony (pun intended) over her anyway. There is also a proto-R2D2 robot named Omega; it speaks, but has no personality. Some of the crew escape, some sacrifice and wind up dead or stranded on the planet. This was released in the States in a cut, dubbed version called FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, which I haven't seen but which was bad enough to get aired on MST3K, but this version is serious (very little humor, intended or otherwise) and is worthy viewing for sci-fi buffs. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951)

Thanksgiving week is when I review science fiction and fantasy movies, reliving my memories of when our local TV stations would program many of these films, for the kids who were off school for a few days (while their parents started Christmas shopping!). This film is probably one of the earliest SF disaster films, produced by George Pal (WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE) and a big hit in its day. Generally, the special effects have aged well, but the predictable human drama has not. Scientists in South Africa give pilot Richard Derr an important packet of information to deliver to scientist Larry Keating; a reporter tries to bribe him to give up his "black box" secret but he doesn’t. The bad news is that in a few months a sun and planet from another solar system are about to collide with the Earth, causing the total destruction of mankind. The "good" news, I guess, is that Keating is planning a Noah's Ark-type flight to the approaching planet to relocate a lucky few humans. World governments don't believe it will work, but millionaire John Hoyt agrees to finance the building of the spaceship. A tired love triangle between Derr, Keating’s daughter (Barbara Rush), and her doctor boyfriend takes up some screen time, while virtually no time at all is given to the inevitable problems that would crop up when billions of people realize they are doomed and that a bunch of white American scientists and workers will be saved. The effects showing some of the destruction on the planet are good, and the ship itself looks fine, but where they land looks like Planet Disney. A high level of tolerance and/or nostalgia for these 50's SF epics is helpful in getting through this. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NIAGARA (1953)

Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe are an unhappily married couple who are spending a miserable vacation at a cabin overlooking Niagara Falls. Casey Adams (who works in shredded wheat) and his wife Jean Peters are also sharing a cabin on their belated honeymoon. During a party, Monroe plays a record of a love song which causes Cotten to go a little berserk—it’s apparently not their song and he suspects she may be seeing someone else. Soon Peters sees Monroe sneaking a kiss with handsome young Richard Allan; it turns out that Monroe and Allan have hatched a plan: he’ll kill Cotten and skedaddle to Chicago; she’ll report Cotten missing, identify his body when it’s found, and then leave town to meet her lover. However, when Monroe goes to the morgue, she becomes hysterical when the dead body is that of Allan instead. The cops misinterpret her reaction and assume she’s identified Cotten, but soon Peters sees Cotten show up at the cabin looking for Monroe. Peters winds up mixed up almost over her head in the fatal affair.

I saw this movie the day after returning from my own Niagara Falls vacation, so it was great fun to see the real Falls provide the background for the film—and also to notice how much the area around the Falls has changed (I can’t imagine that the falls-side cabins still exist). The film itself is a rather bland thriller, not bad but lacking a bit in terms of characterization and writing; Monroe, Cotten, and Allan are given no backstory so it’s difficult to care about any of them—we know more about the relatively minor character of Casey Adams than about any of the love triangle members. Still, the movie has its pleasures: a murder in a bell tower is almost Hitchcockian, there is nice use of color (and, of course, the falls), and Monroe gives a truly good performance, to my mind the best one she ever gave. She was not yet weighed down by the sex bomb reputation and actually gives a performance rather than relying on breathiness and a heaving bosom. Peters, who is actually the main character, is fine. Cotten seems a little at sea, perhaps because he has no real character to play, just a type with little background or motivation. It’s too bright and colorful to feel like a noir, but uses some of the genre’s conventions. I’d give this a “sure, why not?” [DVD]

Friday, November 19, 2010

THE SIN SHIP (1931)

Louis Wolheim is a rough-and-tough, pug-ugly schooner captain who reluctantly agrees to take a soft-spoken minister (Ian Keith) and his lovely wife (Mary Astor, at left) down the California coast when they miss their ship. A drunken Wolheim locks Astor in her cabin and tries to take advantage of her, but she calls him an animal and he leaves, disgusted with himself. When Keith returns to the cabin, we discover that he is really a crook named Smiley and she's a shady lady known as Frisco Kitty, and they're on the run from the law for a heist he pulled in Seattle. When they stop at a port city, Wolheim is a changed man and apologizes profusely to Astor, who comes to feel some affection for the gruff, lonely man. When the captain gets ready to leave, Keith sabotages the engine in order to keep him there until the heat dies down, but the crew thinks that Wolheim is staying on purpose because he's sweet on Astor. Soon Wolheim finds out the truth about the two and ends up defending Astor against a drunken Keith (in a scene involving one of the worst thrown punches ever in a movie). The cops finally catch up with Keith and, in one of the stranger melodrama endings, the ugly guy actually gets the girl. This is mainly of interest for the presence of Mary Astor in one of her early talkies. She's good, though Keith is actually more impressive as he moves back and forth between being a goody-goody man of the cloth and a thuggish criminal. Wolheim, who also directed, is OK but basically seems like a second-string Wallace Beery; he had a long career in the silents, but died of cancer at 55 just months after making this film. Comic actor Hugh Herbert is fine as the first mate; he's still basically comic relief but he's more subtle here than in most of his later roles. Much of the film is slow and stagy, despite the fact that several scenes were shot on exterior locations. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THE BLUE LAMP (1950)

This is an average documentary-style police procedural film of the era, shot on location and with occasional omniscient narration, different only because it's British, and slightly lighter in tone than Hollywood films such as THE NAKED CITY. The movie opens with the narrator telling us about the postwar increase in crime among young people, who are more unpredictable and violent than the run-of-the-mill underworld figures of yore. We see the day-to-day operations of the London Metropolitan Police through the eyes of a rookie (Jimmy Hanley) who is paired up with an older heart-of-gold cop (Jack Warner)—he even rents a room from Warner and his wife. Most of their days seem taken up with patrolling and dealing with domestic squabbles, until we begin to follow the misadventures of two young thugs (Dirk Bogarde and Patric Doonan, pictured, with Bogarde on the right) who, emboldened by a successful jewelry store break-in, pull off an armed cinema robbery during which Bogarde shoots Warner. The older cop lingers for a time then dies, and Hanley steels himself to avenge his partner’s death. Meanwhile, Bogarde's tumultuous involvement with the delinquent teenage girl (Peggy Evans) who helped him plan the heist leads to his downfall, climaxed by a lengthy car chase and a tense finale at a dog-racing track.

This was a big box office hit in England and was Bogarde's breakout film—he indeed exhibits the looks, charm (a rather oily charm in this case), and charisma required of a star in what is theoretically a supporting role, though his character becomes the center of the narrative, detracting a bit from the sentimental old cop/young cop storyline. Doonan is fine as the somewhat dimmer partner, and poor Evans has to undergo the abuse of several slappings, even having a piece of luggage thrown at her. Though Warner's character, George Dixon, dies, he was brought back in 1955 for British TV series that ran into the mid-70's. The use of London locations is quite effective. [TCM]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

OLD SAN FRANCISCO (1927)

Let’s see if I can get this plot-heavy silent melodrama down to a clear short summary. In 1906, the once esteemed Vasquez family is down on their luck. Warner Oland, the shady figure known as the Czar of the Tenderloin, wants the Vasquez land and will go to unscrupulous lengths to get it. Though Oland’s office is in Chinatown, he is known as a persecutor of the Chinese, but he has a well-kept secret: he’s half-Chinese himself and keeps his dwarf brother caged up in a secret room underneath his offices. Oland charges a dastardly lawyer with getting the Vasquez land, but the lawyer’s Irish nephew (Charles Emmett Mack) falls for the Vazquez granddaughter (Dolores Costello). Various deceptions and betrayals occur, including Oland’s attempted seduction of Costello; at the climax, Costello is about to be sold into white slavery, and her prayers seem to bring about the famous San Francisco earthquake which saves her from a fate worse than death.

Despite being quite non-PC, this is an enjoyably over-the-top blood and thunder drama, the kind they don’t make anymore (for a number of reasons). Because I know Oland as Charlie Chan, the revelation of his background wasn’t all that surprising to me, but he makes a nicely slimy villain, though he does at one point pray to Buddha for his sins against his own people. He is portrayed as a kind of Dracula figure, recoiling from the sound of the “accursed Christian bells” from the nearby church, for, as the title card tells us, “in the awful light of an outraged wrathful Christian god, the heathen soul of the Mongol stood revealed.” Costello is rather bland, though Mack is likeable as her Irish hero; his best line, to Costello during their rather tentative courtship, “I’m not bold, I’m Irish!” Anna May Wong has a small role as an accomplice of Oland’s, known only as a “Flower of the Orient.” The earthquake scenes are effective, and are tinted red, orange, and purple. The dwarf is played by Angelo Rossito, whose career continued into the 80’s (the bad guy Master in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME). Fun for those in the right mood. [TCM]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

AIR HOSTESS (1933)

It's the one about the nice-guy pilot who is sweet but passive and nondescript, the hot-dogger pilot who is exciting but irresponsible, and the girl caught between them. This variation begins in the skies over France in WWI; when pilot James Murray's buddy Bob is shot down, Murray guns down his killer. Years later, Murray is a grandstanding pilot who is in the midst of developing a plane with retractable wings which would enable a pilot to use less fuel and fly non-stop from Seattle to Tokyo. The nice-guy pilot, Arthur Pierson, works for TWA and, along with the entire flight and ground crew, keeps an eye on Bob's grown-up daughter (Evalyn Knapp), who works as an air hostess; in an early scene, the guys gang up on a handsome new pilot (pictured) who asks her out on a date and scare him away. To her credit, Knapp is getting tired of their paternal interest, and when Murray flirts with her, she runs off on an overnight trip with him. Of course, this being the movies, the next day, the two announce their engagement. Once they're married, she quits her job, but Murray, who has taken to drink, struggles to make ends meet as he keeps working on his plane. She gets her hostess job back and he finds a financial backer in the person of rich socialite Thelma Todd. Murray sleeps with Todd, and Knapp takes platonic comfort from Pierson, but when a train Knapp is on winds up in danger, the two pilots team up to save her.

This B-picture from Columbia is nothing special, though the air combat footage at the beginning and the planes/train incident at the end are both thrilling. The acting is a problem. Murray, promising star of the silent classic THE CROWD, looks like a less well-groomed Dick Powell; he's fine in the role, but his career, derailed by his drinking, would only last three more years before his untimely death at the age of 35. Knapp tries to be Joan Blondell but she's shrill and exasperating. Pierson has no charisma and practically evaporates onscreen. Todd, another doomed actress, is good as the sexy siren, and Jane Darwell and J.M. Kerrigan are fine as Knapp’s guardians. [TCM]

Saturday, November 06, 2010

SPY TRAIN (1943)

Writer Richard Travis, author of a bestselling expose called "Darkest Germany," is at Union Station (with his comic-relief sidekick Chick Chandler), waiting for a train and looking for Catharine Craig, for reasons unknown to us. When Craig arrives (with her comic-relief maid, Thelma White), Travis contrives a meeting under a false name, though she quickly figures out who he is from the photo on his book (which seems to be everywhere). It turns out that her father is a newspaper publisher who has quit publishing Travis' Nazi exposes, and Travis hopes to get to him through her to find out why. Meanwhile, a husband and wife team of Nazi spies are also on the train; their mission is to get a sheaf of secrets out of a suitcase which is in the possession of Craig's maid. However, we know that, through an error, the suitcase on the train actually contains a time bomb set to go off 10:22 (so of course, for our benefit, characters are frequently announcing the time). The suitcase winds up in and out of compartments, as does the dead body of a mustached spy of unknown origin who is killed early on. Who will get blown up? Who will fall in love? Where will the dead mustached guy wind up?

I was able to find almost no information about this Monogram Poverty Row wartime thriller, which was in itself reason enough for me to consider watching it when it showed up on Turner Classic, and the word "train" in the title was added inducement. But when I saw the name of Richard Travis (pictured) show up top-billed in the credits, I almost deleted the movie from my DVR right away. Travis is, to put it delicately, a bad actor. He's not quite as bad in his B-roles, but I've never forgiven him for almost sinking THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in his romantic lead role as Bette Davis's boyfriend; luckily Davis, Monty Woolley, and everyone else in the film is strong enough to make up for his amateurish performance. Here, he doesn't really hurt the film, aside from being totally lacking in charisma and being unable to provide any thrills or heroics. Craig is a non-entity as well, though sidekicks Chandler and White acquit themselves nicely. One bit actor, a heavy-set guy in glasses (I think his name is Herbert Hayes) is wildly hammy as the chief German spy back at headquarters, but at least puts some energy into his role. As is often the case with Monogram films, there are plotholes galore: though this movie came out in 1943, the plot only makes sense if we assume it's set before the U.S. entered the war; I didn't catch the any reason for why the time bomb was in the second suitcase, which was supposed to be left at Union Station. Nevertheless, for all my fault-finding, I more or less enjoyed this cheap spy thriller quickie. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

LADIES OF THE JURY (1932)

Edna May Oliver is one of my favorite supporting players of all time. Her range may be limited, but when she’s in her element, usually as a droll, horse-faced, opinionated spinster, a good time is practically guaranteed. Here, she’s a scatterbrained rich lady who is called for jury duty in the case of a former chorus girl accused of murdering her rich husband. Like a comic version of the later 12 ANGRY MEN, most of the action takes place in the jury room after the lawyers have argued their cases. Among the other jurors are a stutterer, an Irish matron, a doofus, a gum-snapping totsy, a stagy actor, a mannish lesbian, and a real estate agent. Oliver is the only one who thinks the girl is innocent, and slowly, by making friends and sowing seeds of dissent, she gets the jurors, one by one, on her side, even fixing up two of the jurors as a romantic pair. As it appears that they will reach a deadlock, Oliver arranges for the jury to visit the murder scene to reenact the shooting, and while there, they discover what really happened, and Oliver is proven right. This is generally fun because of Oliver at her pushy, obnoxious best; other cast members include Jill Esmond (Lawrence Olivier’s wife at the time), Roscoe Ates (the stutterer), Ken Murray and Cora Witherspoon. I've reviewed several Edna May Oliver films over the years, but here's a link to my review of her Hildegarde Withers films, in which she played a Miss Marple-ish schoolteacher. [TCM]