Sunday, January 30, 2011


This romantic melodrama has a strong reputation among classic movie fans, but I've avoided it largely because I don't have a high tolerance for the genre; the mixture of romance and pathos and high emotion has to be just right for me to appreciate it (as in HUMORESQUE). We first meet Leslie Howard, a famous concert violinist at the end of a successful American tour; he and his pianist (John Halliday), who is retiring, head back to their native Sweden where Howard is happy to catch up with his wife and children. When he meets his daughter's piano teacher (Ingrid Bergman), who is also a protege of Halliday's, he barely notices her until he hears her play and realizes her potential. After a romantic evening together at the symphony, they stroll around town and fall in love. She fights the feeling for a while, but when he suggests she come along on his European tour as his accompanist, their flirtation becomes a full-blown affair. They have an idyllic time until reality intrudes in two ways: 1) his wife serves him with divorce papers, and 2) Bergman gets word through Halliday that she has won a prestigious musical scholarship. Halliday assumes that the two will come to their senses and end their affair, and they do, half-heartedly, but soon a near-tragedy will cause Howard to finally make a decision one way or another.

Though this film is short (70 minutes), it feels longer, and not in a good way. The beginning of the affair is handled well, and Howard and Bergman have a nice, casually intimate chemistry. For a time, when it works well, it feels like the much better British film BRIEF ENCOUNTER, but when melodrama takes over, things get draggy. It might have helped to have given the supporting cast more to do, especially the always welcome Cecil Kellaway as Howard's manager. Halliday is OK, though Edna Best is bland as the wronged wife; Ann E. Todd gets a few good scenes as Howard's daughter. The masterful Gregg Toland does his usual solid work as cinematographer. I suppose now that I've seen this, I'll need to see the other big romance I've avoided for too long, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


John Ford directed this generations-spanning family saga. In 1825, two powerful families, the Girards from New Orleans and the Warburtons from England, merge their cotton businesses; a young Girard son (Franchot Tone) has some other merging in mind when he falls for Mrs. Warburton (Madeleine Carroll), but after fighting a duel for her honor, he decides not to press the point. By 1914, the business is more successful than ever, and another Girard (Richard, played by Tone) and another Warburton (Mary, played by Carroll) meet and generate sparks, though she is engaged to the German Erik (Reginald Denny) who runs the Berlin branch of the company. To forget her, Richard goes to Europe and when war breaks out, joins the Foreign Legion. Mary becomes the head of the company in Europe and, after Richard is wounded, the two marry, though when he returns to the front, Richard is captured in battle and winds up being interrogated by Erik, now an officer in the German army. After the war, Richard and Mary go to America and by 1925, as a title card tells us (while "Rhapsody in Blue" plays), Richard has forgotten about the lessons of the war; money is his "new morality" and power his "new God." As he becomes richer and more ruthless, he becomes more distant from Mary until 1929, when he loses everything in the stock market crash. The film ends with a prescient montage sequence showing the building of the tensions that would lead to WWII, and a close-up on a crucifix while Mary prays.

As these episodic CAVALCADE-type of films go, this is OK. What with the rush of melodramatic events, the level of acting is almost beside the point; Tone and Carroll are adequate but they don't really get to put an individual stamp on their roles. Of the supporting cast, only Denny shines. Stepin Fetchit does his usual shuffling, barely-articulate bit, though I did chuckle at the scene where he joins up with the Foreign Legion because he thinks he's joining a lodge. A big chunk of effective combat footage, some done with hand-held cameras, was taken from the German film WOODEN CROSSES to which Fox had bought the rights. [DVD]

Monday, January 24, 2011


A heavily-fictionalized biopic about Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger, who built a match monopoly, and supposedly came up with the folk belief that three on a match is unlucky as a publicity gimmick so people would buy more matches. We first see Warren William as Paul Kroll, a flim-flamming cleaning man at Wrigley Field who has come up with a scam involving keeping the names of ex-employees on the payroll, then splitting their money with the other guys. His uncle asks him to come to Sweden to help out with his failing match company; he does, and uses his crooked ways, involving balancing loans, forging, and blackmail, to build the company into a European giant; his motto: "Never worry about anything until it happens." William has an affair with a famous actress (Lili Damita, playing a Garbo type) who eventually dumps him. When he hears an old man has invented an "everlasting match" that can be struck over and over, he pretends to be a sympathetic entrepreneur but actually schemes to get the man committed to an insane asylum. He even commits murder when he gets in over his head in a plan involving counterfeit bonds. By the end, realizing his house of cards is about to come tumbling down, he kills himself. William does a nice job at the center of this fast-moving melodrama, outshining everyone else except perhaps Glenda Farrell and Claire Dodd as two of his paramours—I like both actresses though neither gets much screen time here. [TCM]

Saturday, January 22, 2011


This average wartime musical set in a music hall in London renowned for staying open and never missing a performance throughout WWII is based loosely on the story of an actual theater, The Windmill, which was also the inspiration for a much more interesting film, 2005's Miss Henderson Presents. Here, the theater is mostly just a backdrop for a tediously predictable and underdeveloped romance between American singer Rita Hayworth and RAF pilot Lee Bowman. He flirts with her during an air raid and won't take "no" for an answer, so she agrees on a date, but she gets pissed off when he pulls a fast one to ensure they'll be alone in his apartment. A couple days later, when he's called up for a mission, she suddenly decides she loves him (about the most unconvincing romantic switcheroo ever). Will he come back in one piece? Will she agree to marry him? The only real suspense is in figuring out which character(s) will die, since in a war movie, someone in whom the audience is invested has to die. Will it be her dancing friend Janet Blair? The wispy male dancer Marc Platt, who waits until the movie's almost over to declare his (doomed) love for Hayworth? Florence Bates, the crusty but heart-of-gold manager of the theater? Or will the rather boring Bowman die a hero after all?

There are a few points of interest along the way. Hayworth, in her first starring role, is gorgeous and does a decent acting job with weak material. The Technicolor is stunning, and a couple of the numbers, notably Hayworth's sexy "You Excite Me" and an elaborate production number for an otherwise so-so song called "Cry and You Cry Alone," are fun. Most of the major British speaking parts are taken by thoroughly American actors who can't do an accent to save their souls, and to Bowman's credit, he doesn't even try. Only Texas-born Florence Bates manages to sound authentic. I like that a stab is occasionally made at fleshing out some of the supporting characters, but more attention should have been paid to rounding out the leading couple, not to mention the super-boring Platt and Blair. Hayworth fans won't be disappointed, and devotees of the movie musical might have some fun now and then, but most other viewers will want to skip this one. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Around Christmas of 1944, a small band of soldiers on skis are in a German forest on a reconnaissance mission. There is constant tension between the leader (Michael Forest) who wants to focus narrowly on their assignment and a sergeant (Frank Wolff) who just wants to kill as many Germans as possible. Several times during the movie, the men get to ski down hills, shooting and knifing Nazis; between times, they tramp around a bit awkwardly on their skis and argue. At one point, they come across a cabin in the woods occupied by a tough German woman. In many war movies, this character would wind up being sympathetic to the Americans, but here she's a faithful German who tries to poison the soldiers. The film builds to a climax in which the soldiers try to blow up a bridge; there is a long chase along a snowy mountainside that slows down the action, and some of the men die, but there are plenty of ski attacks and the bridge gets blown up by the end.

Netflix sends their discs in wrappers which usually have a nice paragraph-long summary of the DVD enclosed. For this movie, the wrapper contained one sentence: “Roger Corman plays a Nazi in this cheapy war flick.” Aside from the misspelling of “cheapie,” this is accurate but misleading. I figured if Netflix had nothing good to say about this, it must be a miserable movie indeed, but it's certainly not as bad as the wrapper would indicate. It is a very low budget B-movie, shot in the mountains of South Dakota while Corman's crew and actors were finishing up a sci-fi film, BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE. One of the things that makes it work to the degree that it does is that it was shot in real snow. The action scenes are repetitious (they see Germans in the snow, they shoot at them from afar, ski down a hill, and use their bayonets when they get up close) but the real snow—both on the ground and occasionally falling—adds to the atmosphere. Corman, who produced and directed, does indeed play a Nazi but in a cameo part. All the German dialogue was dubbed in later, though most of the English sounds like it was recorded on set. Not bad for a "cheapy." [DVD]

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Although like Monty Woolley in THE BISHOP'S WIFE, I consider myself to "have no religion," I was raised Catholic and I still find it difficult to resist Hollywood portrayals of Catholicism (if only all priests were like Bing Crosby in GOING MY WAY). Based on an actual event, this film opens with some brief context: in 1910, a socialist uprising in Portugal led to anti-clergy policies including the closing of many churches. By 1917, churches were re-opened but the priests were very cautious about stepping on the toes of the civil administrators. One spring morning, three children playing in a field see a vision of a beautiful lady, in the sky above a tree. She doesn't identify herself but she tells the children to have everyone pray the rosary each day for world peace, and asks them to return to the same spot on the 13th of each month for the next six months. Hugo, a charming village ne'er-do-well (and atheist), advises the children not to talk about the vision, but they do. The priest says they are just suffering from daydreams and downplays the growing talk of a miracle, but soon pilgrims are coming from out of town to try and catch a glimpse of the lady, whom the children think is the Virgin Mary. Eventually, large crowds are present when the children hear the lady warn them that another large-scale war is coming, and she wants Russia consecrated in her name. Government men come in, portrayed a bit like Hollywood gangsters, and try to force the children to recant, but the plan backfires and more people than ever show up for the visitations. On the sixth and final visit, hundreds of onlookers see the sun move erratically in the sky and there are many conversions, including that of Hugo.

This film follows the accepted narrative of the miracle of Fatima quite reverently, throwing in some anti-socialist propaganda for good measure. Perhaps because the protagonists are children, we don't get terribly wrapped in them as characters, though Susan Whitney is fine as Lucia, the oldest child. Gilbert Roland adds some needed interest as Hugo, and Frank Silvera has the thankless role of the chief administrator, the closest thing the story has to a villain. This plays out like a community theater version of the earlier SONG OF BERNADETTE, which was about similar visions which took place at Lourdes years earlier. It must be difficult for filmmakers to decide how much of a heavenly vision to show on screen. In BERNADETTE, we don't see anything, but here, we see a rather static image of a pretty lady in the sky, and we hear her voice talking to the children. Because of this device, it was never clear to me if any of the pilgrims actually saw the Virgin Mary themselves, or were just ecstatic to be in the presence of a miracle. The "Ave Maria" is used extensively in the background score. Directed by John Brahm, who is not nearly as interesting here as he was with his earlier Gothic thrillers THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


One of the movie musicals that killed (or at least seriously wounded) Julie Andrews' career after her back-to-back successes with Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. This and the earlier STAR! are both big-budget period-piece disasters, and both are amorphous messes that can’t commit to being either family friendly or fully adult. Neither movie is unwatchable, but both are disappointments. This one, directed by Blake Edwards, who would marry Andrews just before the film was released, is set during WWI, and features Andrews as a British music hall star; we first see her calming an audience by singing during an air raid, but we soon discover that she’s a spy, selling secrets to German officer Jeremy Kemp who poses as her uncle. She goes to work on American pilot Rock Hudson but two things go wrong: the British suspect that there’s a female spy at work, and she comes to care about Hudson. One of the biggest problems with the movie is its awkward shifting in tone, back and forth from serious spy story to frivolous spy story, with musical numbers and instances of irritating slapstick farce cropping up. There is some good aerial footage, and Andrews does a strip tease number, but as attractive as she is, she just doesn't cut it as a hottie or a femme fatale, whether it's her or just our perception of her. Of course, another big problem is the state of the movie musical at the time; just a couple of years after it seemed to have hit a commercial peak (My Fair Lady and Andrews' earlier films), the bottom fell out and the post-Easy Rider audience was staying away in droves. Here, most of the songs are performed on a stage, and one original song, "Whistling Away the Dark," is actually quite lovely. The DVD contains a director-approved re-cut edition, shorn of some 25 minutes (with the cut footage included as extras), but it still feels a bit too long. [DVD]

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Act 1: Ross Alexander, a goofy clerk who works for Joseph Cawthorn, is sweet on secretary Gloria Stuart, but so is Cawthorn's son, Phillip Reed. Alexander thinks he's getting a promotion to Havana, but instead the boss wants him to keep an eye on Reed. Complications ensue. Act 2: Alexander and Stuart have a spat, and Reed talks his dad into sending Alexander to Havana after all, but at the dock, Stuart and Alexander make up. They get married, Stuart quits work, and Alexander gets fired. Act 3: Marital problems build up, mostly due to Alexander's gambling and Stuart's well-meaning family always hanging around. They split up and both go back to work for Cawthorn. Eventually Reed helps the two reconcile and Stuart makes her family leave them alone.

This is an average example of the romantic comedy subgenre about a young couple grappling with various problems during a rocky courtship and first year of marriage. It's unusual only in that it's based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, "Saturday's Children," though I think the original and the 1940 film adaptation with John Garfield are a bit more serious than this version. This film seems to be Frank Capra material played at Marx Brothers speed, and the result is not wholly satisfying. Alexander was supposedly a promising young contract player at Warners whose career was scotched by his homosexuality, but I've seen him in a handful of films and he just never seemed like a leading man type; he's certainly the weak link in this cast, which is a shame because most everyone else is fine. Stuart is wonderful as always; Reed, a Tyrone Power look-alike, has more charisma than Alexander; also good are Henry Travers, Frank McHugh, and Ruth Donnelley as Stuart's family members. [TCM]

Friday, January 07, 2011


[Spoilers ahead] A 60's psychedelic morality tale with a girl, a motorcycle, lots of solarized color effects, but not much else. Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull), about to marry the pleasant but dull schoolteacher Raymond (Roger Mutton), flirts with Daniel (Alain Delon), a motorcycle-riding college instructor and regular customer at her father's bookstore. While on a skiing weekend in Switzerland, Raymond wants to sneak into Rebecca's room to do some premarital fooling around, but she can't go through with it and pretends to be asleep. Later that night, however, when Daniel comes creeping in through her window, she's all about the sex. She marries Raymond but occasionally takes off on her motorcycle (a scandalous wedding gift from Daniel) and goes from her home in Alsace to carry on an affair with Daniel in Heidelberg. There is no talk of love, but clearly Daniel has "liberated" something within Rebecca--she thinks she's become a nymphomaniac. Practically the entire movie takes place one day as she's riding her motorcycle to see Daniel; in a skintight leather jumpsuit, naked underneath, she rides and writhes and delivers ridiculous interior monologues as we get her narrative in disjointed flashbacks. At the end, her mind too much on sex and not enough on the road, she is killed in a highway pile-up.

As a period piece, this is fun in spots. The director, famous cinematographer Jack Cardiff (BLACK NARCISSUS, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), uses lots of trippy color effects when we're inside her head, though there is no drug use, or even drinking, at all. If you make it through the weird opening sequence, you'll probably stick around for the whole thing: Faithfull, waking up one morning, has a swirly vision of circling birds and a dream of her husband playing a tedious cello piece in a circus spotlight while her lover rides rings around him on a motorcycle. Faithfull is lovely and has lots of screen presence, and is glimpsed naked once or twice. She and the wildly sexy Delon have good chemistry, though for a movie that is mostly set inside Faithfull's head, we never get much insight into her character, or Delon's for that matter. Obviously, Rebecca is feeling smothered, but we never quite see how or why--she does say at one point that her husband's reasonable nature has turned her into a bitch--and the fact that she is killed in the end for seeking freedom complicates the message. There are some truly ludicrous lines to be cherished: "Sometimes it's an instinct to fly"; "Rebellion's the only thing that keeps you alive"; "Your toes are like tombstones." Most of the motorcycling that Faithfull does is either in front of a rear projection screen or while obviously being towed by another vehicle. The sex scenes aren't all that sexy; the last one, in which Delon whips Faithfull with a bunch of roses while she's on top of him, has potential, but as soon as it gets interesting, the color solarization starts up again and you can't tell what the hell's going on. The Redemption DVD print is not in the best shape, but it's presentable. [DVD]

Sunday, January 02, 2011

LA NOTTE (1961)

With this film under my belt, I have now seen all three of the movies in the loose trilogy by Michelangelo Antonioni which are variously referred to as the "Alienation" films or the "Emptiness" films, or the "Doomed Relationships" trilogy, or as IMDb trivia has it, the "Incomunicabiliy" trilogy--and speaking of the difficulty of communication, I'm pretty sure that should be "incommunicability." The first, L'AVVENTURA, is about a young woman who vanishes on a boat trip; what starts out as a sort of detective story as her lover and friend search for her becomes a tale of two people attracted to each other but also bored by each other, and by life. The third, L'ECLISSE (Eclipse), centers on a bored woman who initiates an affair with an attractive stockbroker, only to be bored by him, and by life. LA NOTTE follows a husband and wife through the course of a day and night during which they realize they are, yes, bored with each other and with life. Despite my flippant descriptions, I like these movies, especially the way they look, and think they are all worthy film buff material. But it doesn't seem like Antonioni got very far in developing his thesis, and in fact I think it's the first one that is the richest viewing experience, though L'ECLISSE gets a lot of critical attention for its final long sequence of city street life.

This one has the best acting of the three, probably because the characters are better written. Marcello Mastroianni is a writer, married to Jeanne Moreau (both pictured above). We see the pair visiting an older writer (whom Moreau may have had an affair with in the past), dying in a hospital room, and Mastroianni has an encounter with a woman who pulls him into a room, strips naked, and tries to seduce him, but it turns out she's a mental case. That evening, at a book party, a bored Moreau leaves, wanders the stark city streets, and stops a fist fight. The two go to a club and watch a rather sexy dance/strip number. Later they attend a cocktail party at a large, modern suburban house, all stark white walls and glass; he flirts with Monica Vitti (pictured at right--and honestly, who wouldn't flirt with her?), she leaves for a drive with a young playboy (Giorgio Negro), but both wind up at dawn together in a grassy field. She reads him an old love letter of his, he doesn't recognize it, and they end the film rolling around together in the dirt, in a prelude to a joyless sex act. As in all three films, it is the photography of architecture, and of people framed oddly against buildings and landscapes, that keeps the viewer most interested. But the characters, being better developed than in the other two films, are fairly interesting, even if we never really know what makes them tick, or even really why they feel alienated from each other and their surroundings (the plight of the thinking modern person, I suppose). There are certainly hints: Mastroianni's new book is called The Sleepwalkers; at one point he tells Moreau, "I no longer have inspirations, only recollections"; a discussion topic at the party, among the very well-to-do guests, is about what does or doesn't have lasting value. Plotwise, these threads never come together, but still by the end, you do come away with an almost physical feeling of alienation, or emptiness, or of the sadness of incommunicability. [DVD]