Thursday, September 29, 2011


Cheapie Monogram mystery with a few good supporting performances and a moderately clever plotline to recommend it. As convicted murderer Ralf Harolde is led to his death, he tells a roomful of men gathered to witness the execution that he's going to name the man who paid him to commit the murder, but a poison dart kills him first. DA Ricardo Cortez makes the men submit to a strip search but finds nothing. The field of suspects is quickly narrowed down: is it Gavin Gordon, a representative of an anti-death penalty group (which consists solely of himself)?; is it Harry Holman, a candy-store owner who knew Harolde when he was a kid and who had in his possession a cigarette holder that could have been used to shoot the dart?; maybe it's George Pembroke, a laid-back (maybe a little too much so) businessman who has just recently been appointed to the parole board. Cortez enlists a reporter he's sweet on (Joan Woodbury) to help him crack the case, and together they do. I usually like Cortez, but he comes off as bland and colorless here. At least Woodbury has some energy. Both Gordon and Pembroke are good, as is Iris Adrian as the dead man's ex-girlfriend who knows a little too much for her own good. George Breakston, who had a modest career in the 30s as a child actor, has a couple of nice comic relief scenes as Cortez's switchboard operator who has all kinds of theories about the case, based on true crime books he's reading. A point of interest for librarians: the clue that cracks the case open involves a library book call number. If you overlook the bare-bones production values and style (except for a nifty use of triple-split screen during a phone conversation), it's diverting enough. [TCM]

Sunday, September 25, 2011


A colorful, moody, romantic fairy tale which is too long for its own good. On the Spanish coast, an exotic woman named Pandora (Ava Gardner) drives a drunkard to suicide when she spurns him. She then goads Stephen, a race car driver and her current paramour, to push his car, named Pandora, off a cliff for her. He does, she just about has an orgasm, and then agrees to marry him. However, soon Pandora becomes fascinated with Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), a Dutch artist whose schooner is anchored in the bay. She likes to think he might be the incarnation of the mythic Flying Dutchman, a figure who is doomed to roam the earth eternally. Impulsively, she strips naked and swims out to his boat; coincidentally (or is it?) he is in the middle of painting a portrait of the mythic Pandora in her likeness when she arrives. She's a little freaked out, but soon he has become a member of her band of pals, one of whom is the academic Geoff (Harold Warrender) who has an ancient Dutch manuscript about the Flying Dutchman. [At this point, the story of the Dutchman is told: a 17th century sailor (played by Mason) returns home from his travels, assumes his wife to have been unfaithful, kills her, and is charged with murder. In court, he rails against women (generally) and God (specifically) and is sentenced to death, but on the morning of his execution, he has a vision in which he sees that his wife had actually been faithful to him. He walks out of his cell, is led onto a ship, and is cursed to sail alone unless he can find a woman who loves him and is willing to die for him. Every seven years, he can land for six months in an attempt to find this woman.] No sooner have Pandora and Stephen set the date for their wedding then a celebrated matador named Mario comes to town and woos Pandora. (If you're keeping track, that's three men Pandora is juggling, though Hendrik seems to be the only one she's not sleeping with.) Melodramatics occur, and Mario kills Hendrik one night at his villa. Imagine Mario's surprise when Hendrik shows up at the bullfight the next day. This unbalances him in the ring and he is gored to death by the bull. Finally, on the very eve of Pandora's wedding to Stephen, Mason says he has to leave. She finds out that Mason is indeed the Flying Dutchman; will she venture out to the ship or stay on land and marry Stephen?

Except for the fantasy element, much of this feels like a Fitzgerald narrative about the rootless aimless rich and their careless behavior. Some of the things critics don't like about this movie are the things I like. The film is often faulted for its somber tone, but I think if the proceedings were taken any less seriously, it would all fall apart or become cartoonish. James Mason is very good; the beautiful and sexy Gardner is often faulted as being wooden here, but that's nearly beside the point: it's her face and body that drive these men around the bend, and her sometimes affectless performance is spot on. At a full two hours, the movie is too long, and it seems like when a scene isn't working dramatically, the director just cuts to a close-up of Gardner and all is forgiven. Nigel Patrick is fine as the racer and Marius Goring is good in what amounts to a cameo as the suicidal drunkard. This Technicolor movie always looks good, though on the Kino DVD, the colors occasionally come and go in pulses. If you don't mind the length and the moodiness, I recommend this. [DVD]

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Bebe Daniels is married to a boorish alcoholic (Gordon Westcott) who gets seriously hurt in a drunk driving accident, forcing her to go back to work as a nurse. She becomes a popular employee but hides her past, so two doctors thinking she’s at liberty pursue her: the playboyish Lyle Talbot (pictured with Daniels) and the more stable John Halliday. When an insane patient is operated on, Daniels freaks out; it turns out that her husband is in an asylum. With her secret out, Halliday agrees to operate on the husband to try and restore him to sanity, but a meddling patient (Sidney Toler), thinking he's doing Daniels a favor, plants the idea of suicide in Westcott's head, leading to disaster. This pre-Code melodrama moves along nicely, if predictably, and has some diverting characters, including Beulah Bondi as the older head nurse, Minna Gombell as a hard boiled nurse who's engaged to marry a policeman, Renee Whitney as a flirt, and a couple of wrestlers known as Sonovitch the Terrible Bulgarian and El Humid the Bone-Crushing Turk—real-life wrestler Tor Johnson, who found B-movie fame in the 50s as a member of Ed Wood's repertory company, plays the Bulgarian. A couple of amusing lines: Talbot is referred to at one point as having "muffed the op," and someone asks Bondi if she'd like a "bosom caresser"—that is, a drink that warms you "all the way down." [TCM]

Monday, September 19, 2011


This episodic look at the history of one English village was intended to be a morale-boosting propaganda piece in the early dark days of WWII. It begins with an American reporter (Constance Cummings) arriving at the village of Claverly collecting information for a morale-boosting propaganda piece of her own. She doesn’t think she’ll find much—she asks if one of the "yokels" can show her around—but when farm owner John Rookby (John Clements) agrees to share the village’s history, she gets a story of the resilience of the English in the face of invasion and hard times. She and Rookby and his farmhand Appleyard (Emyln Williams) make it through a bombing raid in a tavern, and later as they look out over Beacon Hill, we're told four episodes from the past, all involving Rookbys and Appleyards, all with the same actors (including Cummings) from the modern segment. In 1086, the villagers rouse themselves against an occupying Norman invader who has threatened to disturb their livelihood by forcing all the village men to stop their own work in order to build him a road. In 1588, during the attack of the Spanish Armada, a beautiful shipwreck survivor is accused of witchcraft and treachery by Appleyard. In 1804, the Industrial Revolution upsets things, with older folks lamenting that young people won’t stay on the farm anymore. Rookby becomes rich and loses touch with the villagers, and is blamed when Appleyard’s infant son dies of malnutrition. The final sequence is set during WWI with Armistice Day celebrated as the last of its kind since the World War must clearly be the war to end all wars. A final shot in the present day confirms the heartiness of the English people and the continuity of their way of life.

Like most movies in which propaganda concerns are placed first, or even most anthology movies, this is not totally successful as art. The first segment is the most interesting, partly due to the coherent story, and partly because it features 13-year-old Roddy McDowell in his last film in Great Britain before he came to Hollywood (pictured above with Cummings and Williams). The 1588 episode lost me along the way; I wasn't sure how the hounding of a woman to suicide tied in to the overall theme of overcoming adversity, though it does end with news of the Spanish retreat. The WWI story is the shortest and least compelling—though the print I saw was almost 10 minutes shorter than the length that IMDb reports for the film, so some material may have been missing. The acting is OK, with Emlyn Williams (at left), also a well-known playwright (he wrote dialogue for this movie), stealing all his scenes, except from McDowell. Williams was also quite good in MAJOR BARBARA the same year. [Streaming]

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Anatol and Vivian are on their honeymoon (with her flirty behavior, Vivian is, as a title card tells us, "putting too much honey in 'honeymoon'"). At a nightclub called the Green Fan, Anatol runs into an old grade school pal, Emilie, who has become a gold-digging jazz baby, and is being kept by Gordon, a much older man. Deciding he needs to save her from herself, Anatol takes her under his wing, much to Vivian's dismay. Gordon tells Anatol to go ahead and perform his "noble rescue work" and he'll be back in a few weeks to "pick up the pieces." At first, Emilie seems ready to change, claiming she was dazzled by "the Fairyland of Wealth" into which Gordon placed her, but soon she's taken up with Gordon again; Anatol smashes her room up good, after which Gordon proposes to her. However, this experience doesn’t cure Anatol of his need to be a white knight, and when he and Vivian decide to spend some time out in the country to repair their relationship, he falls into the same trap with Annie, the wife of a farmer who is also a church treasurer; she has spent church money on nice clothes and now needs to pay it back or her husband will be in trouble. She throws herself into the river but Anatol saves her—there is a comic scene of Vivian watching as Annie, who is pretending to be unconscious, primps in a mirror. Once again, Anatol gets taken in by a supposed innocent. The film wraps up with a third segment involving sexy dancer Satan Synne who is actually the most innocent of all of Anatol’s "affairs": she's desperate for money to pay for operations on her critically ill husband, a wounded soldier.

This episodic comic melodrama was directed by Cecil B. DeMille; it was of interest to me for its two main stars: Gloria Swanson, who plays Vivian, the wife; and Wallace Reid as Anatol, both pictured above. Reid, who was a popular silent star, was in an accident a couple of years before this film was made and became a morphine addict; he died in 1923 at the age of 31. This is the only Reid film I've seen so far, but he seems to have been far from his peak—his looks and build were declining by this time; still, he is adequate for the part. Swanson has little to do except be insulted by her husband's behavior, though she does get to indulge in a little side fling of her own near the end of the film. Agnes Ayres as Annie looks surprisingly modern, like she might pop up in a movie tomorrow. There are some color-tinted scenes and title cards, and a couple of elaborate scenes set at nightclubs. Basically fun for silent-movie fans, though at two hours, it does drag a bit in the middle. [DVD]

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Maria (Dorothy Jordan) lives in a convent in Seville; her older brother Enrique (Russell Hopton) visits to wish her well as she is soon to take her vows, but a little like Maria von Trapp, she's not absolutely sure this is the life for her. One night, she hears singing and cavorting over the convent wall and sees the dashing Juan (Ramon Novarro) performing at a café and she immediately loses her heart to him. Juan lives with his musical mentor Esteban (who thinks Juan is wasting his vocal gifts) and toys around with Lola, his singing partner. The next day, while out with some street kids indulging in some whimsical thievery in the marketplace, Juan meets Maria. They spend the day together and that night, when Juan discovers her story, he puts her to bed alone, determined to be more a brother than a lover to her. However, when her real brother finds out Maria has left the convent, Juan, Maria, and Esteban flee to Madrid where Juan tries for a career in opera. Eventually, he and Maria get engaged, but Esteban shows up, accuses Juan of making a harlot out of her, and takes her back to the convent. Maria and Juan are both miserable; she wastes away while Juan finally has an emotional breakthrough and gets a standing ovation one night when he is called upon to step into the starring role in a opera, though he faints offstage. Will these kids get back together before one or both of them die of heartbreak?

This romantic melodrama has little going for it except for a bravura performance by Ramon Novarro, who acts with depth and does a grand job of singing. Unfortunately, Jordan (pictured with Novarro) comes off like a rank amateur (particularly bad is her over-the-top melodramatic fit as she listens to Novarro's singing for the first time) and she and Novarro have little chemistry. Renée Adorée, who died of TB just a couple of years later, is slightly better as Lola, and Hopton makes the most of his two scenes as the brother. The film feels a bit long, but it's a must for Novarro fans. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THE V.I.P.s (1963)

GRAND HOTEL in an airport (and later, a hotel).  Over a period of 12 hours or so, a number of celebrities, businessmen and rich people wait in a V.I.P lounge at Heathrow Airport for flights out which are all delayed due to fog.  Industrialist Richard Burton, there to see his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) off for a Jamaican holiday, discovers that she's leaving him for a suave gigolo (Louis Jourdan) who shows her more affection than the workaholic Burton.  Film director Orson Welles needs to leave the country by midnight or risk losing a lot of money to the British taxman.  Australian Rod Taylor, scrappy owner of a tractor factory, needs to get to New York to fend off a takeover by a big corporation; when he wires a check that he can't cover, he and his faithful secretary (Maggie Smith, pictured with Rod Taylor) try to figure out a way to get out of trouble.  A duchess (Margaret Rutherford) who has fallen on hard times is off to Florida to act as a social manager for a resort to raise money.  Phone calls are made, plans are changed, flights are canceled, spats are weathered, and finally relatively happy endings are in store for all.  This glossy, soapy film is mostly for Taylor/Burton fans, and both actors are in fine form—and as usual, Burton is the better actor, though Taylor is attractive and carries her part well enough.  Welles seems to have fun spoofing his own persona as an art-film director who cares more about finances that he’s supposed to.  Taylor and Smith work well together, though Smith's best scene is near the end, with Burton.  Rutherford, doing her usual blustery, doddering act, is amusing and won an Oscar for Supporting Actress.  Predictable plotlines, and directed with little style by Anthony Asquith, but fun for fans of the actors.  [DVD]

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Joan Crawford is a Broadway musical star in the middle of rehearsals for a new show; she's a flinty egomaniac who thinks that only she knows what is good for her and her show. She berates a male dancer (a cameo by the director of the film, Charles Walters), insists that she knows more about music than her pianist, and generally abuses her director (Harry Morgan), her agent (Paul Guilfoyle), and her languid boy toy (Gig Young, pictured with Crawford). When the pianist quits, the blind Michael Wilding replaces him, complete with a seeing-eye dog who frequently snarls at Crawford. At first Crawford tries to get him fired for speaking his mind about her musical arrangements, but soon she begins to respect him and even feel affection for him. We learn that Wilding has had a thing for her for some time, and that he saw her perform not long before he went off to war and was blinded. Eventually, he manages to humanize her a bit, and they fall into each other's arms in the last moments of the film.

This odd campy mess reminded me of ALL ABOUT EVE set in the musical theater, except the fact that Crawford is aging is never commented on. She's in fine shape at nearly 50, but she's no singer (her songs are dubbed) and not an especially strong dancer, so the fact that she's still considered the toast of the Broadway musical is hard to swallow—it might have played better to highlight her concern for her age, which would have given her frequent bitchy outbursts more motivation. Wilding is OK, but it's difficult to see what about the milquetoast pianist would attract her on a romantic level, especially when Crawford pretty much plays every scene at a fever pitch, wiping everyone else off the screen. There is an odd scene in which Crawford throws an all-male party; it reads pretty much right on the surface as a gay gathering, even down to her gigolo friend Young. One number, "Two Faced Woman," has become a camp classic with Crawford in brownface, radioactive red lipstick, and a dark wig which she rips off to show her glowing orange hair. The almost amateurishly choreographed number must be seen to be believed. Marjorie Rambeau, who has a totally unmemorable part as Crawford's mother, was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar. I'm not sorry I watched this, but if you're not a fan of campy soap opera or Crawford, you can skip it. [DVD]

Thursday, September 08, 2011

GAMES (1967)

James Caan and Katharine Ross are a mod, swinging, totally 60s Manhattan couple, living a life of playful decadence, collecting pop art (such as pinball machines) and playing games and practical jokes. We see a party of theirs in full swing, with the two performing an elaborate magic trick, much to everyone’s world-weary delight—imagine a less kinky group of Rocky Horror "unconventional conventionists." One day, a door-to-door cosmetic saleswoman (Simone Signoret) faints at their door and they take her in. She, too, has a taste for the mildly eccentric (she carries tarot cards and a gun) and soon, Ross and Caan have more or less adopted her. The three play little games and tricks on other people (including hunky delivery boy Don Stroud, pictured) and each other, with Signoret upping the ante along the way, so that eventually, when Caan seems to catch Ross and Stroud having sex, we don't know if it's real or another game. Things quickly take a more sinister, deadly, and perhaps supernatural turn, but to reveal more would spoil the fun. Actually, with the twisty/mind-fuck plotline practically its own genre now, most viewers will probably figure out what's what long before the ending, but the proceedings are still fun. Caan looks impossibly young, Ross is lovely, Signoret, past her prime, still creates an interesting character, and Stroud makes for some nice eye candy. Fans of character actors will enjoy seeing Kent Smith, Estelle Winwood, and Ian Wolfe. We see a pinball game called Turnpike Pinball which predicts today's violent video games: the game involves traffic fatalities, and the winner "dies" as a death skull lights up. Slight spoiler: If you know Signoret's previous acting credits, you may figure out where this is going the moment she shows up. [Cable]

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

SECRETS (1933)

One of only a handful of talkies starring Mary Pickford. Her name is still well known among film buffs, if only because of her role in establishing United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, but her films are hard to come by. I’ve only seen one, LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY, in which, at the age of 33, she played a teenage street waif, and none too convincingly. But apparently the public loved her in those roles. By the sound era, she was finally playing adults, but in this, her last film before retiring, she plays a character from youth to old age. The film breaks neatly into three parts. In the first half-hour, set in what appears to be post-Civil War New England, Pickford is a debutante, heading for a boring arranged marriage. She and the relatively dashing Leslie Howard meet cute during a buggy ride, fall quickly in love, and run off together to the Wild West as a pioneer couple. The second part of the film shows them establishing a home on the range (with handyman/sidekick Ned Sparks, a grouchy fellow incongruously nicknamed Sunshine, the best laugh in the movie). They've got a cattle business going, but when rustlers break in while Howard is out, threaten Pickford and her baby, and steal their cattle, Howard and others take the law into their own hands and lynch some of the thieves. Unfortunately, the survivors return for a shootout, resulting in the death of the child (a bloodless but startling scene). In the final section, set several years later, Howard, who has become a wealthy and important citizen, runs for governor, but his dreams are almost dashed when an affair he's been having with a saucy Mexican woman becomes public knowledge.

This fits snugly into the family saga genre, or a subgenre I have dubbed the "abridged family saga," in which a family story which covers many years is told in too short a time to have much narrative impact. Each individual section could probably have been expanded into a film of its own, but as it stands, the parts don’t cohere into an effective whole. Pickford, at 40, is too old to pull off the cutesy ingénue of the opening section, but she handles the rest of the film fairly well, looking a bit like Helen Hayes by the end. Howard is fine as the essentially good man who strays, though because of the "abridgement" of the narrative, we mostly have to take his goodness on faith. Mona Maris is the rather unlikely mistress (we are informed that she is not the first), the reliably gruff C. Aubrey Smith is good as Pickford's father, and Sparks is fun as always. No one else makes an impression (though of course I would notice the attractive Huntley Gordon in a small role as the couple's grown son in the last section). Not a bad film, but mostly of interest to fans of Pickford. [TCM]

Friday, September 02, 2011


Jockey Raymond Walton acts like he's in a trance before a big race in which he's riding a horse belonging to rich businessman Gene Lockhart; he seems convinced he's going to die, and he does, in an accident on the racetrack. Walton's father blames Lockhart for his son's death and he's not the only one who doesn’t like Lockhart; his mistress, a nurse, is about to sue him for breach of promise, and his niece (Virginia Bruce) is pissed because Lockhart is about to send her boyfriend (Kent Smith) to Paraguay so she can't marry him. Also in Lockhart's inner circle is a retired British soldier whose wife (Frieda Inescort) was having an affair with the jockey. When Lockhart is found dead in his study, apparently a suicide, Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) works on the case with the police. There's another suicide before Vance figures out that folks are being hypnotized into killing themselves; will Vance be the next victim? I've noted before that Philo Vance seems to be the least "marked" of the big 30s movie detectives. He's a man of independent means, and that's all we know about him. The character was played by a variety of actors, and therefore never strongly identified with any one star. Lowe, a drab, middle-range actor with no discernible personality, is OK in the part, though not as good as William Powell was in THE KENNEL MURDER CASE. But Lowe's part is relatively small compared to most leading detective men, and the supporting cast is strong, especially Bruce, H.B. Warner as the old Brit, Jessie Ralph as Lockhart's seriously nasty bitch of a mother, and Nat Pendleton as a comic relief cop. The hypnosis angle is obvious from the start, but the plot is blessedly coherent and easy to follow, and I was surprised by the identity of the culprit. [TCM]