Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DOUBTING THOMAS (1935)

When a "talent scout" comes to a small Midwestern town to take screen tests (for anyone with the $75 fee), many of the town's citizens line up, including young beautician Peggy. She tries to get the money from her boyfriend Jimmy but he's leery about the whole thing, and his father, Thomas Brown (Will Rogers), thinks rightfully so; he worries that the whole town will go crazy hoping to be discovered. Brown leaves town for a convention and while he's gone, his wife winds up as part of the craze when she takes a lead role in a community theater production. When a disapproving Brown returns, he spreads the rumor that a big Hollywood director named Von Blitzen will be in town to see the tests. The opening night of the play is a disaster and Von Blitzen thinks all the screen tests were terrible—except for a little comedy routine that Brown did. Of course, Von Blitzen is just an actor hired to play a part to teach the townsfolk a lesson, and after Brown smoothes some ruffled feathers, all's quiet in town again.

This mild comedy doesn’t feel like a typical Will Rogers vehicle and it isn't: it's based on a popular play of the day called The Torch Bearers. Rogers gets to do a little of his trademark wise and dry drawling, but this is really an ensemble piece that's been adjusted to focus on Rogers. The actor to watch here is Billie Burke as his wife; in the play-within-the-movie, she gives a hysterically bad performance in a mummified Mae West fashion. The entire play sequence is great fun; it feels like Noises Off, the amusing 90s farce that features the onstage and backstage antics of an acting troupe. Other cast members worth seeing include Sterling Holloway as a prompter who keeps forgetting to give the actors their cues, Alison Skipworth as the pompous director, John Qualen as Von Blitzen, and Frank Albertson as Rogers' son. At times the whole thing feels almost modern, especially the thirst for fame theme (though today the plot would involve casting for a reality TV show), except for Rogers—he's not bad, but with his slower pacing, it feels like he walked in from a whole different movie. [DVD]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

TARZAN AND THE SLAVE GIRL (1950)

Lex Barker's second turn as Tarzan begins much like his first one, with Tarzan and Jane (Vanessa Brown) enjoying a casual day riding elephants in the jungle. They pass some women of the Nagasi tribe out doing chores by the river when one of them screams and vanishes. The leader of the tribe thinks that an evil spirit snatched her away, but when Jane is snatched, Tarzan goes into action, saving Jane and capturing one of the abductors. When the Nagasi try to question him, he falls deathly ill. A doctor from a nearby village diagnoses the illness as highly contagious and makes up a serum. Tarzan, Jane, the doc, his busty nurse Lola, and her lazy boyfriend Neil go to the Nagasi village to administer the antidote, then decide to head further into the jungle to find the source of the disease. It turns out that the kidnapper's village has been overrun by this plague and they're taking women from nearby villages in hopes of repopulating. The prince has his hands full: his father, the king, has just died of the disease and is about to be buried, his young son is mortally sick, and he is about to execute his high priest, who has been no help. Tarzan tries to save Jane and Lola, who have been placed in the majestic and soon-to-be-sealed tomb of the king, but winds up trapped with them; the doctor tries to save the Prince's son but finds he has lost the serum somewhere on the journey. Can Cheetah save the day?

This is less interesting than TARZAN'S MAGIC FOUNTAIN, but Barker's energetic heroics and a moderately interesting cast help make this watchable. Irish actor Arthur Shields is fine as the doctor, Denise Darcel (pictured) is an enticing Lola--she and Jane have a hair-pulling, furniture-crushing fistfight--and Robert Alda and Hurd Hatfield do what they can in the underwritten roles of the boyfriend and the prince. There's a nice action scene involving an attack by camouflaged natives, and in the climax involves a pit with hungry lions. Vanessa Brown is a rather lackluster Jane, though her bullet-bra look will have its admirers. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

TANGLED DESTINIES (1932)

A small passenger plane heading from Albuquerque to Los Angeles is forced to land in the middle of nowhere because of an approaching storm. All thirteen people find refuge in a large abandoned house and settle in for the night. Among the characters: Randy, the unflappable pilot; Tommy, the prone-to-anger co-pilot; Ruth, the stewardess who is the object of both their affections; Miss Dagget, a elderly knitter; a math professor; a lawyer; an ex-prizefighter; a minister; a man and his rich fiancée; and a Chinese art collector. They pass the time by playing cards, chatting, and fixing some soup until the lights go out. When they come back on, one of the men, a Mr. Forbes, is found dead; it turns out that Forbes was carrying a small fortune in jewels and his friend MacGinnis was actually a special agent who was supposed to protect him. The old lady finds the gems stashed in her knitting bag, but they're fakes, so someone in the group not only is a murderer but also has the real gems. Other people are unmasked as not quite what they seem to be, and after the lights go out one more time, the pilots solve the case. This is a B-film from the "Forgotten Horrors" DVD set that is certainly not a horror film, but instead a cracking good mystery, if you can get past the cheap sets. The plot is interesting, though the character backstories are occasionally more complex then needed. There are virtually no actors in this film I had ever heard of but they acquit themselves nicely, especially Glenn Tryon (pictured) and Gene Morgan as the pilots and Ethel Wales as the knitting lady. [DVD]

Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959)

In the striking opening shots of this cop/buddy movie, downtown Los Angeles looks like the nightmarish Pottersville vision of Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life. Stripper Sugar Torch is chased out of her dressing room and shot down in the street. Cops Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta, Korean War buddies and current-day roommates, investigate and discover that she had been working on a new production number in which she would have played a geisha who was murdered by a brick-crushing karate expert. Shigeta, who has contacts in LA's Little Tokyo, questions a judo instructor who was going to participate in the act. Meanwhile, Corbett talks to Victoria Shaw, an artist who had done a painting of Sugar in her kimono. Both men stir up some trouble, leading Corbett's old friend Anna Lee, herself an artist, to keep an eye on Shaw who has been ID'd in the press as a possible witness. Corbett falls for Shaw, but Shaw soon finds herself more interested in Shigeta, leading to tensions between the two friends, exacerbated by the racial element in the romantic triangle. During what is supposed to be a friendly kendo tournament between Caucasians and Nisei (first-generation Japanese-Americans), Shigeta beats the hell out of Corbett, venting over what he thinks is Corbett's racist belief that Shigeta isn't good enough for Shaw. In a climax set during a Japanese New Year parade, the killer is caught and the friendship seems to be repaired.

One is tempted to treat this Samuel Fuller film as a B-crime film, but it's really more a forerunner of the later "buddy movie" genre; even though Sugar Torch's murder is the starting point, we almost cease to care about the solution to the crime because the cops' relationship and the evolving love triangle take center stage. Corbett (pictured at left, perhaps best known for replacing George Maharis in the 60's TV show Route 66) and Shigeta (star of Flower Drum Song who went on to a long character actor career in TV) work well together, and Shaw pulls off the difficult task of genuinely liking both men but only loving one of them. Lee does a nice job against type as a tough old gal with a heart of gold--though for a while, I was sure she was the killer. This black and white film was shot in widescreen and its many notably striking compositions give it the look of a higher-budget movie. Rarely shown on cable, but worth searching for on DVD as part of the Samuel Fuller Collection from Sony. [DVD]

Thursday, August 18, 2011

SCANDAL SHEET (1952)

John Derek is a star crime reporter for the New York Express, a once-respectable newspaper that is now a sensationalistic tabloid run by the brusque Broderick Crawford. Stockholders don't like the direction the paper has taken, believing they are pandering to the tastes of "base morons." Feature writer Donna Reed is sweet on Derek but also hates the paper's direction and Derek's sneaky ways of getting a story. One night, at a lonely hearts dance sponsored by the paper, Crawford meets up with his wife (Rosemary DeCamp), a woman he dumped years ago, after which he changed his name and hid his past; still bitter, she threatens to expose him but during a vigorous argument, he accidentally kills her. Of course, Derek jumps on the story and Crawford has to simultaneously encourage him to find the killer while staying one step ahead of him, and Reed, and the cops.

This B-thriller with a noir touch is a little gem. There are plot elements from THE BIG CLOCK (the killer boss whose employee is investigating his crime) and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (the older guy mentoring the younger guy). Crawford gives a sterling performance, all sweat and bluster and fear; Derek (pictured above) is handsome and sincere; DeCamp's role is small but she makes a strong impression as a bitter, desperate woman near the end of her rope. Reed is OK--her role is the weakest--but veteran supporting player Henry O’Neill is a standout as an alcoholic ex-reporter who gets involved in the case, with tragic results. Based on a book by Samuel Fuller and directed by Phil Karlsen (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL). Maybe not a great movie but a very good one, and required viewing for noir fans. [TCM]

Sunday, August 14, 2011

FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE (1953)

When they were young, British boys Bill and Robin were both taken with American girl Lena, though in their swashbuckling games, Robin always won the girl. As young adults, Lena goes back to the States and the boys go to Cambridge where they become scientists who, years later, develop a powerful machine which is variously called the Duplicator or the Replicator or the Reproducer. Lena returns to their village of Haldeen in time to see the machine at work in their laboratory in a barn; they take a gold watch belonging to Bill's guardian and mentor Dr. Harvey, put it under a clear plastic dome, get a lot of electrical doodads going, and an exact copy of the watch appears under another dome across the room. While Robin goes off to London to get their duplication machine company going, Bill begins experimenting with living creatures. He is tampering in God's domain with an ulterior motive: making a clone of Lena, who still loves Robin, so he can have his own Lena. The duplicating is successful, and for a time Bill is happy with Lena II (whom he calls Helen), but while they're on a romantic vacation, he finds out that Helen not only has all of Lena’s memories, she’s also in love with Robin. Can further godless tampering, involving electrically wiping out all of Helen's memories, make him happy?

If you’ve seen or read any version of the Frankenstein story, you know the answer to that. This version must be one of the first SF films to approach the idea of cloning (though they never call it that), and there is great potential here, but it's squandered as the movie hews closer to romantic melodrama than to speculative fiction. Despite all the interesting philosophical ideas that could be raised here (not just the ethics of reproducing people but reproducing medicines, nuclear materials, and even money), virtually no voices of concern are raised except for some mild tut-tutting by Harvey, who actually uses a phrase very much like "God's domain" at one point, saying "You're not God, Bill!" Special effects are minimal, though the raging fire that ends the film is well done, and acting is adequate, no more, with Barbara Peyton (pictured) fine as the two Lenas and James Hayter faring the best as Dr. Harvey. Worth seeing as a historical footnote to modern-day cloning films. [DVD]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER (1952)

Hollywood biopic about bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa starring a butched-up Clifton Webb as the man who wrote all the marches we still know, and which are still played by marching bands all over the country--and incidentally, the music used as the Monty Python theme. The film begins with Sousa, already in middle age, deciding to retire as the leader of the Marine Corps Marching Band because, as much as he loves his work, he's making no money. Young Robert Wagner, who joined the Corps just to work with Sousa, has invented an instrument called the sousaphone, and a flattered Sousa arranges for Wagner to be excused from service to join him in the creation of a commercial band. Wagner's in love with Debra Paget, a singer whom he helps to get a job in the band, but because Sousa won’t allow wives to travel with husbands, the two must marry in secret. Sousa's band is successful and he keeps writing popular marches; Wagner goes to fight in the Spanish-American War and loses a leg, but returns home and Sousa brings him on stage at a concert to play his sousaphone. Even though the screenplay was supposedly based on Sousa's memoirs, few of the movie's major narrative details are true (the sousaphone was commissioned by Sousa himself), the storyline is not very compelling, and Paget is bland, but Webb and Wagner are fun, Ruth Hussey gets a couple of good moments as Sousa's wife, and just when I would be ready to quit watching, there would be a rousing march or other musical number that kept me away from the remote. [FMC]

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

NIGHTFALL (1957)

Commercial artist Aldo Ray is in downtown Los Angeles seeming a bit paranoid when he's chatted up near the bus station by James Gregory—we soon find out Ray has good reason to be paranoid: Gregory is an insurance investigator who's been trailing Ray, thinking he's got some missing bank heist money. But it's not Gregory that Ray is afraid of, it's the two tough guys (stoic Brian Keith and sadistic Rudy Bond) who actually stole the money, lost it, and now think Ray has it. Later that evening, Ray is approached in a bar by Anne Bancroft, a fashion model who’s lost her purse and needs Ray to pay for her drink. The two hit it off, but when they leave the bar, Keith and Bond show up and abduct Ray. Ray thinks Bancroft set him up (which she didn't), and Bancroft thinks the men are cops (which they aren't). Ray is taken to an oil derrick, beat up and interrogated, and when he keeps claiming he doesn't have the money, they threaten to tie him down and let the oil pump kill him. Ray manages to escape, finds Bancroft, and goes on the run. Flashbacks fill us in on Ray's backstory: he and a buddy (Frank Albertson) were camping in snowy Wyoming, and got accidently tangled up bank robbers Keith and Bond. Bond killed Albertson and shot Ray, leaving him for dead. He also took the wrong satchel and when Ray returns to consciousness, he grabbed the money but lost it in the snow, where it remains. Back in the present, they all wind up in Wyoming where Gregory, believing Ray's story, helps him and Bancroft look for the cash, with Keith and Bond in hot pursuit.

This is an interesting film noir with a handful of standout features. The first half has that traditional noir look, with lots of shadowy nighttime city streets, but the climax plays out in sunny, snowy hills, not your typical noir setting. The flashbacks are unconventional, presented piecemeal through the first two-thirds of the story. It's not completely clear, but Ray seems to have a memory problem in the beginning, so the fragmented backstory may be reflecting his own dawning realization of what’s going on—the memory thing feels like something that was present in a first draft of the screenplay but largely removed by the time filming started. Gruff, beefy Ray plays against type, not only because he's an artist, but also because he is largely a passive physical presence who reacts to the threat of violence like most average people would; not in a blustery, "bring it on" way but more in a "hey, buddy, don’t hurt me" way, not exactly cowering, but not confrontational. It's fun to see Keith, who I know mostly as kindly Uncle Bill in the 60s TV show Family Affair, as a bad guy. Bond, an actor I was unfamiliar with, does a nice job as a hair-trigger sadist psycho—Keith is able to keep him under control, but just barely. The chemistry between the rough-hewn Ray and the smooth Bancroft (both pictured above) works nicely. At one point, she murmurs to him, "You’re the most wanted man I know." The climax, involving a runaway snowplow, conjures up images of the climax of the Coen Brothers' FARGO (though we don’t see any blood or gore in this film). [DVD]

Saturday, August 06, 2011

SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS (1944)

Three cousins who don't know each other inherit a rundown Southern plantation and decide to fix it up and rent out rooms to Army wives so they can live near their hubbies at a nearby barracks. The mismatched cousins are Phil Silvers (perpetually boorish and unfunny), Vivian Blaine (pleasant if unexceptional), and Latin bombshell Carmen Miranda. Gruff sergeant Michael O'Shea gets sweet on Blaine while they all collaborate to put on a show to cover the renovation expenses. Sheila Ryan provides some conflict as O'Shea’s obnoxious former girlfriend, and Perry Como has one of his few acting roles as the handsome soldier with whom Ryan gets involved. There's not much here if you're not already a fan of Miranda's; she is fun but her running gag about getting radio reception through her teeth gets tiresome. There is a war games sequence and some suspense generated when the house is declared off-limits because of a misunderstanding, but everything is righted in the end. The songs are average, the one standout being "Eighty Miles Out of Atlanta." Several people on IMDb claim this has been shown frequently with reels out of order, but that seems to have been fixed for the DVD release. [DVD]

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

TIGER FANGS (1943)

During WWII, animal collector Frank Buck (playing himself) is sent by the government to Malaya to find out what's behind a rash of tiger attacks that is freaking out the locals and slowing work on a rubber plantation, which is in turn hurting the production of Allied war materials. The plantation manager (J. Farrell McDonald) and his handsome nephew (Howard Banks) and lovely granddaughter (June Duprez) are anxious to help Buck and his sidekick (Duncan Renaldo). The natives believe that the tiger attacks are due to the phenomenon known as "djinndaks" (spelling uncertain), the tigers having been possessed magically by the souls of dead Japanese soldiers. We discover quickly that the tubby Gratz (Dan Seymour), head of the Asiatic Animal Export Company, is actually in league with a Nazi doctor (Arno Frey); they poison tigers that they've caught, then let them out of their cages so they'll run crazy and cause havoc. Can Buck and his friends catch them and stop them, and more importantly, can they rescue Duprez when a panther is let loose in her bedroom?

Frank Buck was a real-life adventurer and collector of exotic animals whose slogan (and title of his bestselling book) was "Bring 'em back alive!" He also appeared in a few documentaries and later played himself in a couple of B-films. On the evidence of this one, he couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, but his presence gives the film an aura of authenticity, despite having been shot on a studio backlot with stock footage inserted here and there. He reads his lines one of two ways: 1) like he's reading them off of cue cards: "Thanks for all your…. help, Pete"; 2) or with a little too much growly melodramatic enthusiasm: "That Gratz smells like a Hun!" Duprez (pictured with Renaldo), who gave decent performances in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and THIEF OF BAGDAD, is almost as bad as Buck. The young Banks, who should be the romantic hero, has nothing to do. This means that the best and most charismatic performances are given by the bad guys, Seymour and Frey. Of course, the writing is not particularly strong; early on, when Buck is told that tigers are carrying off children and killing men and women, he replies, "And the natives are taking it badly?" The film is slow going for a while but the last 20 minutes (out of a one hour running time) are filled with action, and there are two particularly effective scenes, one of a tiger mauling a native and another of an elephant stampede in which a bad guy gets crushed to death inside a cabin. Recommended only as a B-movie novelty. [DVD]