Thursday, December 29, 2011


For my money, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel, at least of the 20th century. The 1974 film version with Robert Redford looked good but was long and draggy and hollow, and teaches us that actors who might look right for their roles (Redford and Mia Farrow) are sometimes not right at all. The 1949 version was my own little Holy Grail; long unavailable for viewing, it was supposed to be released on DVD a few years back but was withdrawn before it ever saw the light of day. I was finally able to see it on YouTube, not exactly the best way to view a movie, but until Universal (which owns the older Paramount film library) decides to issue it legally, it's the only to go, and it's definitely worth seeing. In the 1920s, young Nick Carraway becomes friends with Jay Gatsby, an impossibly rich and handsome man who gives elaborate Jazz Age parties but whom no one really knows. Nick finds out that Gatsby has amassed his wealth in order to win back his old flame Daisy Buchanan, who is now unhappily married to a cheating brute, and Nick becomes an accomplice in Gatsby's plots to get Daisy to run off with him, with tragic results.

In the book, the source of Gatsby's wealth is ambiguous; here it's blatantly presented that he has built a "dark empire" as a rum runner, but generally as far as plot, this film is fairly faithful to the book. Alan Ladd was never an actor of great depth, but being that Gatsby is mostly a man of surfaces, he's almost exactly right for the part, and certainly embodies the character more satisfyingly than Redford did. Macdonald Carey as Nick comes off as a moralistic prig, the exact opposite of the hero-worshiping Nick of the novel. Betty Field is serviceable as Daisy, nothing more. Same for Ruth Hussey as Jordan, the cheating golfer who flirts with Nick—in this film, they wind up married (!); the entire film is Nick's flashback as he and Jordan visit Gatsby's grave many years later. Barry Sullivan is OK as Daisy's husband. Elisha Cook Jr. is an itinerant pianist who lives in Gatsby’s house and who served with him during WWI. Henry Hull plays Gatsby's mentor in a plotline that has been considerably fleshed out from what's in the book. The best acting comes from Howard Da Silva and Shelley Winters as the Wilsons, a sad couple who are the catalyst for the tragic ending. Though the first big party at Gatsby's is well staged, the movie does not have a strong 20s feel to it. But this version's biggest minus is the lack of poetry and ambiguity that make the novel such a wonderful reading experience; gone is any sense of "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." There is one line I enjoyed that I suspect is not Fitzgerald’s: Nick: “I’d like to take you over my knee”; Jordan: “Any time, any place!” For all its faults, this is the best film version of the book yet produced. [YouTube]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Dana Andrews is a tough cop, a little too tough for his superiors; he has a reputation for acts of what today would be police brutality, and after his latest scuffle, he's knocked down a rank to second grade detective. His latest case involves a Texas oil man (Harry von Zell) who was brought into a crap game by lovely Gene Tierney, doing a favor for her thug husband Craig Stevens. The oil man loses a lot of money, then starts winning. When he decides to leave the game, Stevens' boss (Gary Merrill) isn’t happy. Stevens slaps Tierney around, blaming her for not getting the oil man to stay. When von Zell steps in to be a gentleman, he and Stevens get into a fight. Fade out to next morning when von Zell is found dead. Andrews fingers Stevens and winds up slugging him a bit too hard, killing Stevens. Andrews panics and tries to make it look like Stevens left town, then when his body is found, tries to frame Merrill, but circumstances lead to Tierney's father being arrested for the murder. To make matters stickier, Andrews has started dating Tierney.

This is a nice little film noir that in the wrap-up lets everyone off a little too easily. There is a deep dark psychological reason given eventually for Andrews' problems, in particular his desire to see Merrill fry, but after spending two-thirds of the film painting Andrews as a dark anti-hero, things lighten up a little too much and some of the impact of the first half of the film is lost. Still, Andrews (pictured) is fine as the good cop/bad cop, Merrill does a nice job as the cocky hood, and Karl Malden, in an early featured role, plays Andrews' newly promoted boss. Tierney isn't given a lot to do besides look lovely, which she does. Ruth Donnelly has a nice bit (in a Thelma Ritter mold) as a café owner who dotes on Andrews and tries her best to advance his romance with Tierney. Neville Brand stands out as a creepy little crook. A solid noir melodrama with the right look and, for at least half its running time, the right feel. [FMC]

Monday, December 26, 2011


In a bustling market neighborhood in London, young Joe and his mother Joanna live with a kindly tailor, Mr. Kandinsky, while waiting for Joe's dad to come back from South Africa on a (seemingly desperate) business deal. Joe flits around on the streets, making friends with everyone, chasing pigeons, and mourning his pet chicks who never live very long. While keeping Joe entertained, Kandinsky tells him about the magic of unicorns who can grant wishes, and soon Joe finds a young, sickly one-horned goat at the market and buys it from its owner. Convinced that the "unicorn" is real, he begins making wishes for his friends and relatives that eventually come true.

That summary makes this film sound like a sweet whimsical fantasy, but it's actually a non-whimsical slice-of-life comedy-drama, albeit in a mood of poetic realism. Much of it was filmed on location in Petticoat Lane in London, which looks like the Lower East Side of New York always used to look in movies. Because the setting grounds the film in realism, some touches of whimsy would be welcome, but aside from the first sighting of the unicorn, there just isn't enough magic in this movie. Seven-year-old Jonathan Ashmore (in his only acting credit) does a nice job as Joe; Celia Johnson (of BRIEF ENCOUNTER) is fine as his mother. Too much of the film is given over to a subplot involving a "dumb lug" boxer (the beefy but wooden Joe Robinson) and his sexpot girlfriend (Diana Dors, often called the British Marilyn Monroe); neither the actors nor the characters are particularly interesting. Best is David Kossoff as the tailor who seems to truly be looking out for Johnson and her son. Nice use of color is a plus; length of the film (at least 15 minutes too long) is a minus. The goat is cute, and I wound up caring more about its fate than the fates of any of the humans. Some critics have said that the film leaves it up in the air as to whether or not the goat is magical, but I saw absolutely no evidence of such an interpretation: it's a poor little one-horned goat and the outcomes for the humans don't need magic to explain them. [TCM]

Friday, December 23, 2011


A sentimental Christmas romantic comedy with a bit of an edge, written by Preston Sturges. A couple of days before Christmas, snappily dressed looker Barbara Stanwyck is on trial for shoplifting a bracelet. She's a career crook and DA Fred MacMurray knows it, but he also knows that at the holidays, a jury will always sympathize with a woman, so he gets a continuance until after the first of the year. She can't make bail so MacMurray arranges for it. She thinks he did it because he expects something in return, but he's just a nice guy about to head out to Indiana to visit his mom; when she frets that she has no place to go for Christmas and he finds out she's also from Indiana, he suggests she tag along. However, when her cruel mother turns her away, she goes with him and experiences an old-fashioned, totally functional, rural family Christmas; she begins to lose some of her hardness and falls for MacMurray. His big-hearted mother (Beulah Bondi) takes good care of Stanwyck, but is also smart enough to know that she could be bad news to her straight-shooting son, who worked hard to get where he is and might get derailed by a "bad girl," even one who is ready to reform. On the way back to the big city, he encourages her to skip bail in Canada, but she decides to keep her court date and face the music.

This is a movie full of tonal shifts. It starts with comical big-city courtroom shenanigans as a lawyer (Willard Robertson) gives an over-the-top speech to the jury claiming Stanwyck was hypnotized by the jewels and therefore not responsible. The trip to Indiana has some road-trip comedy I could do without, but it leads to an intense, almost noirish scene with the uncaring mother (think Beulah Bondi as the bad Pottersville Ma Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). The Christmas sequence is touching without passing into sticky-sweetness, but the last 20 minutes turn a little too melodramatic for my taste. Of course, Bondi is fine, as are Elizabeth Patterson as MacMurray's spinster aunt and Sterling Holloway as the sweetly dopey farmhand (all pictured above with Stanwyck and MacMurray). I like MacMurray mocking Robertson's theatrical delivery to the jury with the line, "Quick, Watson, the needle!" I don't so much like Snowflake Toones' drawling valet stereotype. The first time I saw this film (when I was much younger) I was really pushing for Stanwyck to skip bail and resented what felt like a Code-imposed ending, but now it feels more organic to the story. A lovely Christmas movie and one which hasn’t become the victim of over-exposure (yet). [VHS; available on DVD]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Two married couples, Tom & Eve Martin and Tubby & Sally Smith, are enjoying an evening together at the Martin's Hollywood home. Eve made Tom promise that they’d make a short night of it as she seems ready for some bedroom time with him, but Tom and Tubby have something else in mind: meeting and greeting a couple of would-be starlets whom they have in mind for a movie they’re backing. When the guys say they have to head to the studio for some unfinished work, the gals decide to hoof it to Mexico for a little vacation. After they leave, Tom and Tubby invite the starlets over for a late-night swim, but of course, the wives return and catch them. Thanks to a silly plot point (the men have been advised to put all their money and property in their wives' names so they won't lose everything if the movie flops), the wives head to Mexico prepared to gamble everything away. The men follow, hoping to make amends, but the starlets also follow. Complicating things, a couple of gigolos posing as Spanish waiters flirt with the wives. Naturally, this being a comedy, things work out in the end.

This mild pre-Code romantic farce is watchable but never rises above that. Charlotte Greenwood (Sally), known for her long legs and crazy kicks, is usually someone I like, but here her character is such a braying bitch that I was tired of her in the first 20 minutes. Lelia Hyams (Eve) and Harry Stubbs (Tubby) are lackluster but acceptable. I enjoyed seeing Reginald Denny (pictured), usually given comic relief sidekick parts, getting a starring role as Tom and doing well with it—of the four leads, he's the only one who really seemed at all sympathetic. Cliff Edwards gets a few good moments in as one of the gigolos (he's supposed to be a college student, but looks every bit his 35 years of age); Kane Richmond is younger and better looking as his buddy, a football star, but doesn't get to do much. Greenwood and Edwards sing a cute number, "Just Like Frankie and Johnny." Apparently, some of the exteriors were shot at the homes of Denny, Buster Keaton, and John Gilbert. [TCM]

Sunday, December 18, 2011

MY SON JOHN (1952)

An interesting entry in the string of anti-Communist propaganda films of the early 50's; the commie plot is secondary at times to the dysfunctional family plot which seems lifted from the works of Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, All My Sons). Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger say farewell to two of their sons as they head off to the Korean War. Their third son, Robert Walker, who works in Washington for the government, misses the farewell dinner but shows up a week later and we immediately see tensions between the three: Mom and Dad are old-fashioned, God-fearing, hard-working, middle-class citizens (Dad is running for head of the local American Legion unit); Walker is an effete college-educated liberal who does soft office work and seems to be an atheist to boot. Father and son are constantly at odds--during an argument, Jagger literally thumps Walker with a Bible--though Mom seems just a little too adoring of her little boy. Soon, Van Heflin shows up, a Fed who suspects that Walker is a Communist and is giving state secrets to the Russians through a woman who is eventually arrested for treason. Of course, he is, and of course, eventually, he sees the error of his ways and wants to spill everything to the FBI, but will his fellow travelers let him go that easily?

One problem with the film is the acting. Hayes gives an out-and-out bad performance, jittery, wide-eyed and mannered, like she's on a TV soap opera (except she doesn't keep looking at cue cards). Jagger's a bit better; he goes over-the-top frequently, but he does have a certain nervous chemistry with Walker, like a father might have with a son he felt he didn’t really know. Heflin has nothing substantive to do. Walker is the saving grace; as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, he's playing a gay character but can't really let on that he is (godless commie + academic + mama's boy = light in his loafers). He does a great job balancing the character's conflicting emotions: genuine love for a family from which he's grown away, genuine belief in Communism as a panacea for the world's ills, and an apparently genuine desire to "reform." Sadly, Walker died halfway through filming, and the climactic action had to be completely rewritten in a way that largely dispenses with Walker's character; some footage of Walker from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is incorporated and a climactic speech which was supposed to be delivered by Walker at a college graduation is instead presented on tape in an interesting looking but dramatically inert scene. For an actor who always seemed a bit high-strung, he gives a remarkably natural performance. At two hours, it's too long, but worth seeing for Walker. [TCM]

Friday, December 16, 2011


Charles Boyer is a struggling composer living in a boarding house; when his latest dissonant concert music is played to negative reviews in London, he has a big hissy fit leading to him smash his piano, so he heads off to the Swiss chalet of old friend Montagu Love to recover. He basks in the adoration of Love’s daughters, especially bubbly teenager Joan Fontaine (at right with Boyer). Love sympathizes with Boyer, but chastises him, telling him he’s "ashamed of melody," and encourages him to work on one of his short, lovely throwaway tunes which has caught Fontaine's attention. Boyer is also told that he will learn to write truly great music only after he learns to cry. Fontaine, who has a heart condition, clearly has a crush on Boyer, and they spend some idyllic times together in the mountains, but after Love dies, the girls are put in the care of their uncle (Charles Coburn).

Time passes; the girls are taken to England for schooling and Boyer marries Alexis Smith, Coburn’s daughter. Up to this point, the film has played out like a romantic comedy, but things take a melodramatic turn here and we get a series of emotionally charged conversations between Boyer and Fontaine (who is completely in love with him), between Boyer and Smith (who are having marital problems), between Smith and Coburn (he knows she's not happy), and between Fontaine and Smith (she knows Fontaine's in love with her husband). Boyer finally has an emotional breakthrough when he realizes he's in love with Fontaine, cries, and is able to flesh out his throwaway melody into a symphonic "tone poem" which becomes a huge success when it is played in concert. Fontaine, whose heart weakness spells are increasing, listens to the piece over the radio in ecstasy, but…, well, heart conditions being what they are in movies, the ecstasy is short-lived.

This movie had been out of circulation due to copyright problems for over 50 years and had become something of a Holy Grail for classic movie buffs, so inevitably it's a bit disappointing to finally see it and realize it's just an average romantic melodrama, on the order of other such films set in the world of classical music (INTERMEZZO, HUMORESQUE). Fontaine gives a good performance; she never seems as young as she's supposed to be, but that's a good thing because it would be a bit too creepy to have a real 14-year-old be the romantic object of the mid-40s Boyer. I'm not a big fan of Boyer but he's quite good here, with just the right doses of egocentrism and tenderness. There are some fine supporting players, but their plotlines aren't given enough attention for them to shine: in addition to Smith (pictured above with Fontaine) and Coburn, there's Brenda Marshall as the oldest daughter who, because she dates around, has the reputation of having "gone bad"; Peter Lorre as her off-and-on lover; Dame May Whitty as a high society lady; and Eduardo Ciannelli as a family servant. The tone poem "Tomorrow" was written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and has taken on a life of its own outside the film. My favorite line, delivered by Coburn to Smith: "Stop moaning about like a woman in a novel." This film was in fact based on a novel. Better than INTERMEZZO, but nowhere as good as HUMORESQUE. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Mary Astor is making a return to the stage after suffering a nervous breakdown when her husband (Louis Calhern) was reported killed in San Francisco—he was a rotten bastard but he had some kind of strange, almost hypnotic, power over her. Now she's healthy and happy and has the lead in a play that's a hit in its out-of-town tryout; she's acting with her famous brother (Edward G. Robinson), she's friendly with the author (John Eldredge), she's dating the producer (Ricardo Cortez), and she's living in her rich aunt’s mansion. Suddenly, on the night they decide to take the play to Broadway, Calhern shows up, alive and as much of a bastard as ever. Astor immediately falls under his power again and plans for the show appear to be scotched until a French investor arrives wanting to buy Calhern's half of the show from him—ideally, this would give him enough money to clear out of Astor's life and let her get back to acting. But after a meeting with the investor, Calhern is found dead. Everyone in Astor's life is happy but the police still want to find out who did it, and they think it's fishy that the French investor has simply vanished. Who else might be involved?

This old-fashioned melodrama is based on a hit play by George S. Kaufman & Alexander Woollcott called The Dark Tower (which is the name given to the play-within-the-movie) and, though the film adaptation is not especially stagy, the impact of the climax of the play is, I would think, dependent upon a theater audience not being able to see everything up close, and of course, movies tend to be dependent on the opposite: clarity and close-ups. I won't give any spoilers, but a good bit of tension is dissipated here because film audiences will know what’s happening long before a play audience would (the trick involves a character in disguise). Still, it is fun to see things play out to an ending which is clear-cut but with an ambiguous shading or two—the Production Code wouldn't allow the killer to get away without punishment, unlike in the original play. All the actors are fine, particularly Louis Calhern who seems to relish playing an out-and-villain who would certainly be twirling his mustache if he had one. The one weak link is Mary Astor; she's fine as the carefree actress, but as soon as she falls under Calhern's power, she's basically playing a zombie. Also of note: Mae Clarke as a bad actress and David Landau as a cop who ends up wishing he didn't have to make the arrest he will after the fadeout. (Pictured above are Cortez, Robinson, Astor and Calhern) [TCM]

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


This short B-film feels like a cross between a TV show and a movie, specifically Father Knows Best crossed with Double Indemnity. It begins in sit-com land around the suburban breakfast table with Dad (Jeffrey Lynn), Mom (Martha Scott), and the two kids. When the kids go off to school, conversation gets around to the problems the couple is having making ends meet. She talks him into asking his boss (Richard Gaines) for a raise, but as it happens, Gaines tells Lynn that he's about to be let go—the company is in dire financial straits. Over drinks that evening, Gaines makes Lynn a proposition: Gaines plans to kill himself so his family can get his life insurance money, but he asks Lynn to come to the house that night after the fact to shoot a gun through the window to make it look like murder and robbery so the insurance company will pay out. Gaines offers Lynn $10,000 so Lynn reluctantly agrees. The plan goes off alright, but when the police start suspecting Gaines' business partner (Henry O'Neill), who had been arguing with Gaines recently, Lynn doesn't know what to do: if he clears O'Neill, he could be arrested on a felony charge and Gaines's family will be destitute; if he remains silent, an innocent man might be charged with murder. But as the cops keep investigating, it starts to look like it might not have been suicide after all.

Though blandly directed, the plot is compelling enough to keep your attention for 70 minutes. Lynn, typically a supporting actor, is a big zero in the lead role, and Scott's character is underdeveloped, so that I ended up not caring what happened to the two of them, but Gaines (who had a small role in DOUBLE INDEMNITY as the clueless head honcho at the insurance company) is good, and even better is Harry Morgan (pictured above, on the left with Lynn in the back seat) who enters halfway through as the police inspector who solves the case (he's given a limp and a cane, though they serve no plot purpose). Katherine Emery is fine as the widow, and Michael Chapin, who plays Lynn's son, is the real-life brother of Lauren Chapin, who played "Kitten" on, to bring this review full circle, Father Knows Best. [TCM] (Note: Tomorrow, I'm off for the Turner Classic Movie cruise, so there'll no reviews for a week or so.)

Sunday, December 04, 2011


There's a crime wave going on and the DA (Jerome Cowan) is being blamed for failing to get convictions; he can't beat powerful lawyer Edmund Lowe, known as the Wolf of New York, who keeps getting crooks off in court. Lowe's former secretary (Rose Hobart), daughter of a police inspector, left his employ and now works in Cowan's office, though she and Lowe are still friendly. One of the biggest crooks of all is James Stephenson (pictured at right), investment banker by day, dealer in stolen bonds by night. When one of Stephenson's men is arrested during a robbery, Lowe is hired to defend him and uses an underhanded trick to get the jury to find the man not guilty. Soon, Hobart's father gets a break in a case against Stephenson, thanks to baby-faced Maurice Murphy, an ex-con gone straight whom Lowe has taken under his wing. When Stephenson has the police inspector killed, he frames Murphy who, though defended by Lowe, is found guilty and executed. Later, thanks to a deathbed confession by another con, Cowan realizes that an innocent man has been put to death and resigns. Upset over his inability to save Murphy, Lowe starts drinking and giving up cases, but soon Hobart gets the governor to appoint Lowe DA, and Lowe gets a chance to get the goods on Stephenson.

This mild B-crime film could have used a rewrite (too much narrative, and too much of it related as background exposition) and better leads, but the supporting cast is fun. The urbane Stephenson, who would have his big breakthrough later that year as Bette Davis' lawyer in THE LETTER, is the main reason to watch, though Cowan is fine in his few scenes. Murphy (at left) makes a convincing patsy, and Ben Weldon provides comic relief as a henchman. In fact, the comic lines are better than average here. I'm not a fan of the wooden Lowe, though he comes off a little better here than usual, but Hobart is deadly dull, and the two have no chemistry at all. [TCM]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

4D MAN (1959)

Young, handsome research scientist Tony Nelson (James Congdon) is working with a force field device that would allow an object, like a pencil, to penetrate a material, like steel, without harming the material—something about molecules bonding and using up years worth of energy in just seconds. In his latest attempt, he gets the pencil through a block of metal, but in the process accidentally burns down the lab and gets fired. His older brother Scott (Robert Lansing) is a head researcher for an important scientific firm, and has just perfected a new, completely impenetrable metal called Cargonite, though the old scientist who runs the firm takes all the credit, leaving Scott a little dispirited. Luckily, he has his lovely assistant Linda (Lee Meriwether) to comfort him, but when Tony arrives asking for a job, Linda and Tony hit it off, leaving poor Scott in the lurch. Tony continues working on his force field after hours and Scott keeps brooding; then one night, after Linda gives the Scott the brushoff, Scott breaks into Tony's work locker and starts messing with the device. Surprise: he manages to push his hand through a solid metal block and pull it back out, leaving no marks. Soon, simply through the strength of his brain waves, he can turn this power on and off without the device. The problem: every time he does this, he ages some 10 or 20 years, and can only get back his youth by reaching into a living person and stealing his or her life force, which leads to the victim's quick aging and death. Scott slowly loses his sanity, going on a binge of theft and murder; can Tony and Linda stop him?

This B-film from the director of THE BLOB is an interesting attempt at a "Thou shalt not meddle in God’s domain" story, but the screenplay has a few too many ideas for the film's budget. For example, the way the device works is vague, and when the idea of human will power affecting it comes into play (first with Tony, who mentions that he "willed" his first experiment to work), I was lost. The love triangle has potential, but Meriwether, though sexy, doesn't have much personality, and Congdon (pictured with Meriwether) is so much better looking and more dynamic than Lansing that there's just no contest. The role that the Cargonite material plays in the plot is mostly theoretical—the impenetrable object to Scott's irresistible force—though I think it's crucial to the downbeat but confusing ending. Still, the effects are quite good for a low budget film of the era, and the movie has a rich palette of blues and flesh tones. Lansing is a little drab but gains strength as his character goes crazy, and Congdon is good-looking and intense. Familiar character actor Robert Strauss plays a fellow researcher who is Lansing's first victim, and 12-year-old Patty Duke has a small role. A shrill jazz score is interesting at first, but overused and unwelcome by the middle. [Netflix streaming]