Saturday, July 30, 2011


Totally routine, dreadfully slow B-movie murder mystery of the "reading of the will in an old dark house" variety. Cranky old bachelor Silas Wayne has gathered his good-for-nothing relatives to his home for the signing of his will. Some of them are getting one dollar, including Claude (Eddie Phillips) his seemingly well-meaning but suspicious-acting nephew and secretary, though a valuable (but cursed) diamond is being left to his faithful maid (Lucille La Verne). He's leaving the bulk of his estate to young Gloria, on the condition that she not marry her boyfriend, the slimy and ever-neurotic Dwight Frye (pictured). However, in the middle of the signing, Silas collapses and dies, apparently due to a heart condition, but when the doctor (Jason Robards) discovers a knife in his chest, the police are called in. Detective Regis Toomey eventually gets to the bottom of things with some help from his girlfriend, wisecracking reporter Nosey Toodles (June Clyde). Halfway through the movie, a mysterious hooded figure shows up, mostly, it seems, to scare the bejesus out of shuffling black butler Snowflake Toones. The slow pace of the proceedings is made more unbearable by a total lack of background music. The actors try but can't do much with the bland material. Clyde tries the hardest, but Toomey, who just wasn't leading man material, can't keep up with her. Robards, father of the more famous Jason Robards Jr., sounds at times like he's doing a Jack Benny impression. Only of interest to B-movie buffs. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


It's just another day in the jungle for Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah until they find the remains of an old plane crash with a log kept by Gloria Jones, a famous aviatrix who disappeared in 1928 and is presumed dead. Tarzan takes the log to two traders, Trask and Dodd, but when he finds out that her testimony could free Jessup, a man imprisoned for murder, Tarzan heads for the mysterious Blue Valley, where he knows that Gloria is living, to bring her back to civilization. Even though she’s 50 years old, she looks 25, and Trask and Dodd figure out that something about living in the Valley keeps folks young and healthy. They send a thuggish underling to find the Valley, but the natives, who dress in leopard skins, shoot flaming arrows across the gorge at the entrance, killing the thug. After Gloria gives her testimony, she returns with Jessup, her new husband; being out in the world has caused her to look her natural age and she wants to take Jessup to the Valley where they can live together. Tarzan is reluctant to barge in on the secret land again, so Jane decides to take them. Along the way, the two traders connive to join them. Tarzan follows in secret and gets them out of a couple of jams, then takes Gloria and Jessup into the Valley where he sees the Magic Fountain whose water keeps young. Meanwhile, Jane and the unscrupulous traders, who want to exploit the Valley, are stuck on the other side of the gorge, with flaming arrows heading their way. Can Tarzan save the day?

Johnny Weissmuller had become too old and paunchy to play a hunky jungle hero, so he is replaced here by Lex Barker, who is 30, blond, fairly handsome, and in fine shape. He's from a high society family and looks it, and he doesn’t have the somewhat primitive heft and command of Weissmuller, but he makes up for that with his lithe, athletic bearing. As for acting, that's never a talent called upon very often for the role of Tarzan, but at least Barker isn't sleepwalking through the role as his predecessor seemed to be doing at times. Brenda Joyce is a passable Jane and Evelyn Ankers is fine as Gloria. Albert Dekker brings his villainous glowering to the role of Trask, and handsome B-actor Charles Drake plays well against his usual nice-guy type as Dodd. There's a little too much time given over to chimp shenanigans, though the final joke, with Cheetah drinking some of the magic fountain water, is worth seeing. The flaming spear shooting scenes are quite effective. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Twin sisters have children on the same day, one a boy and one a girl. The boy's mother dies young and both cousins are raised by the girl's mother. Separated in their teens when the girl goes off to school, they are reunited in their early 20s. The boy (Hywell Bennett) clearly has a thing for the girl (Jane Asher) and sublimates it by, while on a picnic in the English countryside, declaring his intention to "pimp" her to some appropriate man, and he has success with the first man they meet, a hunky and handsome Swede (Sven-Bertil Taube, pictured with Asher) who makes quite an impression by skinnydipping in the river. Sven returns the favor by getting Hywell a woman, American Leigh Taylor-Young. Hywell and Leigh get it on right away, but when they rent a house in Spain for a 2-week getaway, Jane doesn’t seem quite ready to lose her virginity to Sven. Eventually, she gives in (and Jane catches cousin Hywell spying on some of their trysts) but Leigh, who has been around the block a couple times, picks up on to the incest vibe between the cousins and has a brief affair with Sven. The four head back to the city and live together in Hywell's flat, then rent a countryside vacation house near Clive Revill, Leigh's rich, middle-aged former lover. The vaguely unsettled feeling amongst the four comes to a head when Leigh announces her pregnancy—the father could be Hywell, Sven or Clive. Sven marries her and they go off to Sweden. When the four reunite a year later, tragedy occurs when Leigh's baby dies while left unattended on a rocky beach (while Leigh and Hywell have sex). Leigh goes a little crazy and strips naked on a disco floor. Clive re-enters the scene, and Hywell and Jane finally seem ready to face their feelings for each other—or are they?

On this plus side, this has sumptuous colorful cinematography; on the minus side is most everything else. Really, it's not a terrible movie, but given the era and the free-love-meets-incest plotline, it should have been more interesting (or at least had more nudity). All four main characters are sorely underdeveloped. Bennett (at right) and Asher have some chemistry, but remain curiously bland figures. Taylor-Young gives a flat-out bad performance, part of the problem being that her character remains a total (and totally boring) cipher. Taube gets to show off some chest now and again, and he's the most sympathetic person in sight, but even he's not compelling enough to keep the viewer hooked on the soap opera antics of the young and overprivileged of the late 60s. The title comes from a chain of flowers that Asher makes and gives to Taube during the picnic and which is never referenced again. Chain of Fools might have made a better title. [DVD]

Saturday, July 23, 2011


My summer Tarzan marathon (coinciding with Turner Classic's Saturday showings) is not intended to be complete; I missed most of the Weissmuller films so I'll mostly be reviewing films from the 50s and 60s, and I'll be picking and choosing among those. But I thought I should backtrack and re-watch the very first film in the series, before Tarzan got "tamed" by the Production Code and the movies turned into kiddie matinees. In Africa, British trader Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and his younger associate Holt (Neil Hamilton) are about to head out into unexplored territory to find the fabled Elephant’s Graveyard—so they can harvest it for ivory. When Parker's lovely young daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) arrives to stay, saying she's through with civilization (though she brings about a dozen trunks with her), they let her tag along. After the group gets past a dangerous cliff and a river full of hippos and crocodiles, Jane is whisked away by Tarzan, a strange man in a loincloth living alone in the jungle who travels through the treetops; he can communicate with animals just fine (partly through language, partly through his infamous echoing yell) but has problems with Jane. He lets her go but she remains fascinated by this primitive man, and when the traders' group is attacked by savage dwarfs (definitely not pygmies, we are told) and about to be thrown into a pit with a wild ape, Tarzan rescues them. They discover the graveyard, at which point old Parker dies; Holt decides to come back with a team of ivory harvesters, but Jane announces she's staying with Tarzan.

Unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs' original character, this Tarzan has no backstory (at least in this film) and speaks only in single words: "Tarzan"; "Jane"; "hurt." Weissmuller, an Olympic swimming champ, does a nice job; he doesn't have to do much acting, he has enough chemistry with O'Sullivan that we can understand why she decides to stay, and he gets to show off his athletic abilities with lots of running, jumping, swimming, swinging through trees (with a trapeze bar often visible), and fighting animals. O'Sullivan is cute and perky and likable. Smith and Hamilton aren't exactly painted as bad guys, though in future films, anyone wanting to disturb the ways of the jungle will be considered a villain. This pre-Code film is not particularly sexy (nude swimming would happen in the second film, TARZAN AND HIS MATE) though it is quite violent, especially in the climax when Tarzan kills an ape with a knife through the eye followed by throat-cutting, and an elephant stampede destroys the dwarfs’ village. Some African location footage is interspersed here and there, sometimes effectively, sometimes not (a scene in which Smith and O'Sullivan supposedly interact with a native tribe is especially badly done). This and MATE are certainly the best of the early Tarzans, partly because the formula hadn’t hardened, and they hadn’t decided to make Cheetah "cute" yet. See my review of the 1959 remake here. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

KIPPS (1941)

A Dickensian coming-of-age story based on what I assume is a fairly Dickensian coming-of-age novel by H.G. Wells. Sometime around the turn of the century, young Arthur Kipps (Michael Redgrave, pictured) is parted from Ann, a girl he's sweet on, and sent away from his home village to be an apprentice to Mr. Shalford in his large clothing store (more the size of a department store—the workers all live in a barracks-style building attached to the store). He reaches adulthood and proves to be a fine worker, but is not totally satisfied with his pinched working-class prospects and goes to a school for self-improvement where he takes a class in woodcarving taught by the lovely, upper-class Helen (Diana Wynyard), to whom he takes a fancy. One evening he is almost run over in a bicycle accident by a boisterous actor named Chillerlow. The actor takes Kipps back to his flat where he puts on a one-man version of a play he's written. They both get drunk and Kipps doesn't make it back to Shalford's until morning, missing the curfew, and is fired. By outrageous luck, Chillerlow arrives at the store to tell Kipps that his name is in the paper: he has been left a nice house and a lot of money by his late grandfather. Moving up in the world, Kipps begins to court Helen (and her brother agrees to manage his money for him) but also meets up again with his grown-up old flame Ann (Phyllis Calvert). Further adventures bring further ups and down, and a betrayal by Ann’s brother brings what seems like a permanent financial reversal, but one more time, Chillerlow has a grand bit of luck for Kipps.

This is a very middle-working class movie; the lower class is to be gotten out of, but the upper class men and women, though attractive, are ultimately presented as empty and worthless. (Hint, hint: guess which woman he winds up with at the happy ending?) Redgrave is good, but like the character of Pip in Great Expectations (of which this occasionally reminded me), he comes off as a rather bland and passive fellow, and the cast of characters around him is more interesting. Standouts include Wynyard, Calvert, Michael Wilding (as Wynyard's brother), Arthur Riscoe (whom I'd never heard of) as Chillerlow, Hermione Baddeley as a friendly co-worker at the store, and especially Max Adrian as Coote, one of those smarmy, insincere people who ingratiate themselves with the upper class in order to get what they want, and who is instrumental in Kipps' financial fall--Adrian looks amazingly like Monty Python's Terry Jones. The episodic film takes its time until the last 15 minutes when it rushes to an end; this is probably because the American print, which I saw, runs 82 minutes, but the original British film ran almost a half-hour longer. [FMC]

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Sodom and Gomorrah are cities of "sin and unspeakable vice," ruled by a wicked Queen (Anouk Aimee) who seems to have a love/hate relationship with her brother Astaroth (Stanley Baker, at right)—and that may be literal, as there seem to be sexual sparks between the two on occasion (that is, when she's not flirting with her handmaidens and he's not seducing visiting women). The cities also have a large slave population for working the salt mines. Lot (Stewart Granger) brings his wandering Hebrews to a river near Sodom, hoping to set up living quarters outside the city. When Lot agrees to help Sodom fight the warring Helamites, the Queen gives them some land and they are able to thrive there for a time, but there is tension because of anti-slavery feelings of the Hebrews. The Queen gives Lot, a recent widow with two young and comely daughters, a Sodomite slave girl named Ildith (Pier Angeli) who teaches the daughters to wear make-up (gasp!) but is otherwise a decent sort, and soon Lot marries her. The Hebrews help to drive back the Helamites, but their own land is destroyed and Lot reluctantly decides to move his people into Sodom, which of course, leads to their corruption, though Lot fails to notice because he’s soon living the high life after the Queen appoints him First Minister of Sodom. It isn’t until much later that Lot discovers that Astaroth has seduced both of his daughters. When Lot kills Astaroth in a knife fight during a banquet, the Queen says he's become a true Sodomite, finding it "delicious to cause death." After he sees the error of his ways, Lot has a visitation from two angels (two grumpy old men) telling him to take the Hebrews away, and ordering them not to look back as Jehovah destroys Sodom. The film ends with the city's destruction and the inevitable scene of Lot’s wife looking back anyway and being turned into a pillar of salt.

There is lots more plot to this overstuffed but slow-moving Biblical epic, but not all the narrative threads were clear to me. For example, early on Astaroth strikes a secret deal with the Helamites but I was never clear what this was about. There is a second-in-command Hebrew character named Ishamael (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) but he has little to do except stand around, look handsome, and occasionally act as Lot’s conscience. This isn’t exactly a B-film (though since most of the cast is Italian, the post-dubbed dialogue gives the film the feel of a cheapie Hercules movie), but the effects budget should have been higher. There are two well-done action sequences: the first is the battle with the Helamites, which plays out like the Red Sea story in reverse as the Hebrews flood their land to kill the attackers; the second is the destruction of the cities with lightning, earthquakes, and fire. Though the use of miniature sets is fairly obvious, the scene is still impressive here and there. The best actor is Stanley Baker, who almost makes you cheer for his slimy, treacherous Sodomite character, who, after he's been kissing on one of Lot's daughters, says to her, "Do I remind you of your father?" and then tries to arrange a three-way with a soldier. Granger (pictured behind Baker) tires hard but is rather colorless. At 2-1/2 hours, this is definitely too long, but if you stick with it through the slow first hour, things do pick up. If nothing else, there are lots of attractive men and skimpily-clad women to watch. My favorite line: "Be careful of Sodomite patrols!" [FMC]

Thursday, July 14, 2011


This average spy thriller is set at a small resort hotel on the French Rivera just before the outbreak of WWII. James Mason, a medical student and amateur photographer, is hauled in by the police when the film in his camera is discovered to have some snapshots of military installations, photos that a German spy might have taken. Mason's not a spy and the police know it, but they want him to go back to the hotel and find out which guest might have accidentally used his camera for their espionage. The suspects include a pompous windbag who is wrong about virtually everything he says, a scruffy fisherman, a German loner, a newlywed couple, the female manager of the hotel, and, of course, a pretty young girl whom Mason can fall for while he's risking his reputation and his life with his somewhat sloppy investigation. Most critics compare this unfavorably to a Hitchcock thriller, but I think that’s asking it to be something it isn't and, as an RKO B-film, could never have been, not to mention that the film has three directors given credit, which is never a good sign. It does occasionally have some nice visual touches that wouldn't have been out of place in a Hitchcock film, but the lower your expectations, the more you're likely to enjoy this film. The plot has holes and the acting is so-so, with the standouts being the young Mason, the always reliable Herbert Lom (pictured), and Lucie Mannheim as the hotel proprietress. Not especially memorable, but not a waste of time for fans of the stagy WWII B-spy films, like me. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

MOROCCO (1930)

Gary Cooper is a Foreign Legionnaire who is temporarily stationed in Morocco, where he gets the hots for Marlene Dietrich, a sultry singer and dancer in a small café. On her first night, she causes a sensation when she comes out in a tuxedo; the rowdy crowd makes fun of her, but they are silenced by Cooper, who wants to let her do her thing. Her thing consists of strolling through the crowd flirting with everyone (even giving a seductive kiss to a shocked young woman) and tossing Cooper a flower as she leaves the floor. However, the older and richer Adolphe Menjou is also obsessed with Dietrich, and he has the means to help her rise in society. While Cooper goes after Dietrich, he is not lacking for female companionship, and his affair with his boss's wife leads to trouble. Menjou gets the officer to tone down a threatened court-martial and instead Cooper is sent out to the desert to fight Arabs. He wants to quit the Legion and run off with Dietrich, but she's not sure she can give up the creature comforts that Menjou can give her. She moves in with the older man, but at their engagement party, Cooper's troop marches through the streets, on their way to another desert station. The next morning, Dietrich gives up everything to join the "rear guard" of the besotted women who follow the Legionnaires.

As with most of Marlene Dietrich's collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, the plot is not the point, Dietrich is, aided by the lush visuals surrounding her. She (and Sternberg) don't disappoint here; Dietrich is exotically beautiful and sounds as sexy as she looks. Cooper, young, lanky and confident, is almost as sexy as she is. "Languid" is the word that kept coming to my mind, in a positive way, for Dietrich, Cooper, and the overall tone. One review I read of the movie noted how unusual it is to have a situation in which both the male and female protagonists are sexually experienced; they are both, in their way, "bad." Even better, neither one really has to reform by the end, though Dietrich has to sacrifice her secure way of life. It's beautifully photographed, and though clearly not shot in Africa, the sets and locations provide a plausible Moroccan fantasy, just as they do for CASABLANCA. As a bonus, Dietrich sings two songs in her inimitable style. [TCM]

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Two confessions: 1) as a lad on the edge of puberty, I was fascinated with Tarzan. I read Tarzan books and comic books, saw bits and pieces of the Tarzan movies on Sunday afternoons (I couldn’t always watch the whole thing because Dad got the TV on Sundays for football), and owned a book called Tarzan of the Movies, filled with pictures of hunky men wearing only loincloths. If it was a book that made me gay, this was it; 2) even though I was a big Tarzan fan, I can only recall seeing two of the Johnny Weissmuller films all the way through: Tarzan of the Apes (his first one) and Tarzan and His Mate (his second one). Of his twelve Tarzan movies, these two are considered the best. By the time Weissmuller made this one (his eighth), even though he wasn't 40 yet, he was going to seed: his face was a bit puffy, his stocky body was way past its prime, and his acting hadn’t improved. Even his famous yell sounds a bit puny here. Still, this movie has its moments and I wasn't sorry to have sat through it.

With World War II raging, Jane is in England working as a nurse; she sends Tarzan a message asking him to send her a rare fever cure found in a jungle past the Arabian town of Bir Herari. That town is run by a well-intentioned sheik with a handsome, Yale-educated son, Prince Salim. Unfortunately, the sheik has allowed a businessman named Hendricks to have too much influence; the working people like the sheik but despise the unfair, hard-driving Hendricks, whom we discover is actually named Heinrichs (and thus probably a Nazi). Meanwhile, Tarzan, Boy and Cheetah cross paths outside town with vaudeville entertainer Connie Bryce who has been sent on a mission to deliver a message to Salim from an old Yale buddy, exposing Hendricks. She goes about singing the Yale fight song ("Boo-la, boo-laaaa…") in order to find the prince but just after she gives him the message, Hendricks and his henchman kill Salim and pin the murder on Kelly, who is sentenced to death. With Tarzan in jail on a trumped-up charge of horse thievery, it's up to Boy and Cheetah to help him escape so they can all free Connie. Then, the real excitement starts as the good guys go racing through a desert sandstorm to reach the jungle to get the fever medicine before the bad guys catch up with them. Tarzan and his pals (and Hendricks) have to face giant prehistoric lizards, giant man-eating plants, and a giant spider before the medicine is found and the proper message delivered to the sheik.

The soon-to-be-bloated Weissmuller seems to just be going through the motions, but this is a fun flick thanks to the exotic setting, the supporting cast, and the youthful energy of Boy, played by 12-year-old Johnny Sheffield. Nancy Kelly does a good job with the underwritten role of Connie, Otto Kruger makes a good Germanic villain, Joe Sawyer is fine as his associate, and Robert Lowery (the first actor to play Batman, in a 1949 serial) is handsome indeed as Salim. In fact, at times this seems barely to be a Tarzan film; it plays better as a WWII B-spy thriller. The spider is laughably bad and most of the other effects are borrowed from other movies, but the last 20 minutes, beginning with the horse stampede that Tarzan uses to free Connie from the hangman's noose, move along nicely. My favorite line is from Kelly, when explaining to Salim about singing the Yale song: "I've had a very liberal education; I've been intercepting Yale passes for years." With Turner Classic running Tarzan films all summer, there will certainly be more Tarzan reviews on the way. [TCM]

Friday, July 08, 2011

10:30 P.M. SUMMER (1966)

A 60s alienation film, but strictly a second-rate copy of Antonioni by director Jules Dassin. The film opens with a handsome man (Julian Mateos) stalking through a rainstorm, arriving at a house where his wife has just had sex with another man. He shoots them both dead and goes on the run. Cut to four people who are taking a car trip through Spain: a middle-aged couple (Peter Finch and Melina Mercouri), their 7-year-old daughter, and a lovely young woman (Romy Schneider, pictured with Finch) whose exact relationship to the family is never clear; she's having an affair with Finch, she's friends with (and takes one mildly erotic shower with) Mercouri, and sometimes looks after the child. They happen to stop for the night in the village where the murder we saw has just occurred. The depressed, alcoholic and restless Mercouri hears about the whole affair and seems to feel some spiritual kinship with the outlaw. That night, after witnessing Finch and Schneider kissing passionately in the rain, Mercouri sees Mateos in hiding, on a rooftop rolled up in a tarp. She befriends him and helps him hide for the night in a field outside the village. Sadly, when she checks on him the next morning, he's dead. This is the catalyst for another restless day and night for Mercouri, leading to a frenzied flamenco dance scene followed by an ending, copied right out of Antonioni, which is ambiguous but the most satisfying part of the movie.

The screenplay is by New Wave-ish writer Marguerite Duras, based on her own short story, and the characters just haven't been given enough roundness. We learn practically nothing about their past, and their actions in the present seem mostly unmotivated. Leaving Mercouri's relationship with the killer husband hazy is fine, but leaving her role in the potential ménage-a-trois unclear is sloppy--some critics say that she imagines some of the love scenes between Finch and Schneider, but I didn't pick up on that. Mercouri's performance is almost over-the-top in a harsh and ugly way. Finch and the sexy Schneider are good, but poor Mateos (pictured at left) doesn't even get a single line of dialogue (that I can recall). The best thing about the film is the cinematography; the film always looks great, and as lovely as the landscape shots are, the night rain scenes are especially effective. [DVD]

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Young innocent secretary Barbara Stanwyck goes to a bootleg drinking party on a yacht just outside the 7-mile limit with her boss's slimy son, Rod La Rocque. The yacht is raided just as La Rocque is forcing himself on Stanwyck; a photographer snaps a pic of the two, but La Rocque bribes him to get the photo. Eighteen months later, Stanwyck has married her new boss, William Boyd, and has a new upper-class life which is disturbed when she finds out that La Roque is back, and dating Boyd's beloved kid sister (Betty Bronson). When Stanwyck tells La Rocque to leave their family alone, he tells her he's planning on leaving for Hawaii with Bronson, and if anyone tries to squelch his plans, he'll show Boyd the incriminating photograph. Things come to a climax one night in La Rocque's fancy two-story hotel room to which all the principals arrive at one time or another; one person winds up dead, but two confess to the murder. The ending is satisfactory but relies on a ridiculous plot twist (the dead person is not quite dead yet) to wrap things up.

The title seemingly refers to two different doors: the one that La Rocque locks on the yacht and the locked hotel room door that figures prominently in the ending. Based on a play, Stanwyck's first talking picture is stagy but does incorporate some interesting camera moves, especially the opening, a long tracking shot in which the camera moves along a bar on the yacht as hordes of obnoxious rich people shout orders at the bartenders. Boyd, not the same actor who went on to fame as Hopalong Cassidy, is the weak link here; Stanwyck is fine and though La Rocque overplays his dastardly role a bit, it fits the character. Zasu Pitts has a small comic relief part as a telephone operator at the hotel. [TCM]

Sunday, July 03, 2011


The Reverend Smallwood (Peter Sellers) is a prison chaplain who is appointed head at the parish of a small English village. The appointment is an accident—he's the wrong Smallwood—but no one catches it at first. Smallwood is a genial type, but he's upset that the town seems too concerned with money and comfort and not enough with basic Christian values like love and charity. He hires a black garbageman (Brock Peters) as his assistant, lets a large and obnoxious homeless family live at the vicarage, and insults the rich Lady Despard, whose family owns a company that has made a fortune with a wonder pill called Tranquilax (it's a sedative, a stimulant, and a laxative). Surprisingly he gets Lady Despard on his side and she offers to give him all her farm’s excess food (and extra drug products from the company) to give away to the needy. Soon, however, all the town's residents are taking advantage of the offer, and with no one buying anything, the local economy goes belly up, as does the drug company when Smallwood starts disparaging Tranquilax from the pulpit. Eventually, the town turns against Smallwood; he is relieved of his duties and appointed to become the first vicar of outer space. Yes, outer space.

This seems for a while like it's going to go in a heartwarming Capra direction, but the satire, which is directed at virtually all the characters, even Smallwood, is too biting and cynical for that, and the narrative goes off in unexpected directions. The homeless family, which you assume will become pleasant and stand on its own two feet, remains lazy and unlikable; Lady Despard's conversion is surprisingly genuine, and the mild-mannered assistant doesn't have the fortitude to remain by Smallwood's side. Even Smallwood loses his heroic sheen and seems like a naïve boob by the end. Overlong and not for all tastes, but an interestingly bitter little comedy. [TCM]

Friday, July 01, 2011


This is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. I've always struggled a bit with the plays of George Bernard Shaw: his dialogue is witty and his characters are interesting, but the messages feel muddled to me, perhaps because I'm unfamiliar with the specific social contexts of the plays, most of which were written between 1890 and 1920. The major of the title is Barbara Underschaft (Wendy Hiller), daughter of a wealthy weapons manufacturer. She believes the family business is evil and she has renounced it (though she still lives her family and relies on their money personally) and works for the Salvation Army saving souls and feeding the poor. When Adolphus (Rex Harrison), a Greek scholar who gives streetcorner classes for workers, sees Barbara electrify a crowd with her sermon, he falls in love with her. He offers himself up to be saved, but is direct with Barbara about his feelings for her. Strange plotpoint #1: She basically says, OK, no problem, we're now a couple, and suddenly what one might expect would be the entire plot of a Hollywood romantic comedy is dispensed with in five minutes. Barbara takes Adolphus home to meet her family and it happens to be the night that Barbara's mother has invited her estranged husband (Robert Morley) for dinner for the first time since the children have grown up. Strange plotpoint #2: The family tradition for passing on the reins of the business is that they must go not to a biological child, but to an adopted child, and Underschaft feels the need to find an heir. Underschaft and Barbara spend much of the rest of the film sparring over their philosophies; he winds up donating a huge amount of money to the Salvation Army to keep it running, and when the Army accepts it, Barbara, feeling it's tainted money made by war and death, resigns. Eventually, Underschaft takes Barbara on a tour of one of his plants, which he runs like a working man's mini-utopia (strange plotpoint #3) and decides to adopt Adolphus (who is technically an orphan) to run the business. Barbara sees that capitalism is more beneficial than giving handouts to the poor, so she joins them.

And that's only about half of the plot of the film. There are other major story threads involving folks at the Salvation Army: Robert Newton plays a drunkard who is upset that his former girlfriend has been saved; he winds up smacking young Army worker Deborah Kerr across the face, and spends the rest of the movie torn between not caring and trying to make it up to her. Emlyn Williams is a poor but sly artist and Marie Ault is an old but sly woman; the two have a particularly good scene together. The movie works fairly well until the last third, but the whole weird "utopia" solution at the end feels like Shaw, who wrote the screenplay based on his own play, is trying to have his socialist cake and eat his capitalist cupcake, too. The fact that England was in the middle of war when the film was made may have had something to do with the contradictory presentation of Morley's weapons work. Harrison, though present for much of the film, isn't a very active presence, and acting-wise, Hiller (pictured above with Williams) carries the movie well, along with Morley and Williams. There are witty lines; my favorite, from Barbara's mother: "You go on as if religion were a pleasant subject." A very odd experience indeed. [TCM]