Tuesday, January 31, 2012

MARGIE (1946)

Margie (Jeannie Crain) and her teenage daughter are cleaning out the attic and come upon some artifacts of Margie's own teen years during the late 1920s, leading Mom to tell the story of her senior year in high school. Back then, Margie was lovely but a little awkward socially—at least 3 times during the movie, she loses her bloomers because she's negligent about attending to the elastic. She begins dating the nerdy but nice Roy (Alan Young), but quickly falls for the new handsome and sophisticated French teacher, Mr. Fontayne (Glenn Langan). Actually, most of the girls in school are gaga for him, though he seems interested in Miss Palmer, the librarian (Lynn Bari). When Roy falls ill and can't take Margie to the prom, she gets the impression that Mr. Fontayne is going to step in and take her, which is what she tells her best friend, but instead he's taking Miss Palmer. How will Margie ever save face?

It feels like this cutesy nostalgia piece was conceived to cash in the popularity of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. It’s light, fluffy and likeable but can't compete with the Judy Garland classic. For starters, the plot is satisfyingly thin, rarely straying from Margie and Mr. Fontayne’s "will they or won’t they get together" storyline. There is a sideplot involving Margie's widowed undertaker father of whom she sees very little, which gets folded into the prom plot. There is also a nice comic scene of Margie participating in a debate club event. However, both Alan Young and Lynn Bari are wasted in trifling roles, the bloomers gag gets old fast, and though the movie is in color, it's not very colorful. There are a few pluses: Crain is lovely and generally charming and Langan pulls off the good-looking, older man role well, without ever seeming creepy (it's dropped at one point that he's really not that much older than Crain, just in case the audience is a little queasy). Period music is used to good effect. The best scenes in the film are stolen by Barbara Lawrence as Marybelle, Crain's sexy blonde best friend, and Conrad Janis as her hunky jock boyfriend "Johnnykins"; the two have chemistry and when they're on screen, they can’t stop moving, always dancing together even when there's no music. The movie's worth watching for those two alone. [TCM]

Monday, January 30, 2012


Clifton Webb, the head of an automobile company, needs to fill the position of general manager at his New York City office and brings three managers and their wives in from other cities to interview for the job: 1) Fred MacMurray has developed an ulcer and his wife Lauren Bacall is ready to leave him over his obsession with work, but he's the only one of the three who seems to desperately want the job; 2) Cornel Wilde is critical of modern business methods and his wife, June Allyson, is reluctant to give up their wholesome Midwestern family life; 3) Van Heflin is competent but not terribly ambitious, though his wife, Arlene Dahl (pictured with Webb), is plenty ambitious for both of them and loves the idea of moving to the Big Apple. Though Webb interviews all the men, it's his theory that paying attention to the wives is equally important if not more so, so he arranges a series of social situations in which they can all interact. Bacall, despite her problems with MacMurray, works at making a good impression; sweet Allyson keeps saying the wrong thing, especially one night when she gets a little drunk; sexy Dahl tries using her seductive wiles on Webb. Ultimately, it's the behavior of the wives and how their husbands react that determines who Webb chooses for the job.

This is one of those 50s movies with a wide screen filled with attractive sets and mannered performances covering up a fairly shallow story that might work better on television. The idea here, that the wives are better indicators of the men's suitability for the job then the men themselves, is clever, and Webb's final decision may surprise some viewers, but the characters are all surface with little depth. Still, this generally held my interest. Allyson and Dahl play their parts rather broadly, but the other actors are fine, with Heflin and Bacall standouts. Elliot Reid and Margalo Gillmore as relatives of Webb's are also fine. Webb is his usual brittle self; predictable but fun to watch. I particularly like Webb actually saying the clichéd line, "I like your spunk" to Wilde. [FMC]

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Two film adaptations of the Sophocles play "Oedipus the King" were done within a year of each other, both taking very different approaches to the material. The 1968 British film follows the play's action and dialogue closely. It's stagy even though it's filmed on outdoor locations in Greece, but it records a very theatrical and effective performance by Christopher Plummer in the title role. The film begins with Thebes in the throes of a plague that is killing off people, crops and animals. Oedipus, who arrived in town years ago not long after the unsolved murder of King Laius and became King (and husband to Queen Jocasta) thanks to his defeat of the monstrous Sphinx, has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to get advice from the gods. Creon (Richard Johnson) returns around the same time as the blind prophet Tiresias (Orson Welles) shows up and both have essentially the same message: the killer of Laius is still in Thebes and must be exposed. The story that eventually comes out is that Oedipus himself is the killer of Laius; in trying to escape a foretold fate that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he left Corinth so as not to hurt his parents and wound up in Thebes. What he didn’t know is that Laius and Jocasta were actually his parents; when Laius was told that his child would kill him, he tied the baby's ankles together and left him in the wilderness to die. Little Oedipus was found by a shepherd, taken to Corinth, and adopted by the King and Queen. So in trying to escape his fate by leaving his adopted parents (thinking they were his real parents), he actually sealed his fate: he killed Laius in self-defense and married his real mother, Queen Jocasta. When all is made clear, Jocasta (Lilli Palmer) hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself by thrusting her hair pins in his eyes.

This version was certainly not produced with the intention of being a commercial blockbuster, but a movie tie-in edition of the play was published in 1968 with photographs from the Plummer film—and I owned a copy at the tender age of 12. As it follows the play very closely, and is well acted, even if it never quite achieves the tragic power the material calls for, this would be a good teaching tool, but the film is very difficult to find today. After over 40 years of trying to see it, I finally found it posted in several parts on YouTube. It’s not the ideal venue but it’s better than not seeing the film at all. Plummer is excellent, the other lead actors are fine, and the device of having various men speak the lines of the chorus works nicely. Less effective is when all the townsmen say some lines in unison, but it’s not done too often. The suicide and blinding are powerful without being unduly graphic. Indeed if this were on DVD, I imagine it would be being viewed in classrooms all over the country. [YouTube]

A year before, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted the same material in a very different style, with the title OEDIPUS REX. The biggest change is that Oedipus’s story is told chronologically, beginning with his birth, so that the first half of the movie is material that, in the ’68 version, is not presented onscreen. The first few minutes are set in modern dress and setting (as is the last scene); Laius seems to simply sense that his child will kill him (the information is conveyed on a title card) so ties the kid’s ankles, hangs him upside down like a pig, and has him taken to the desert. The rest of the story (Oedipus going to the oracle, heading to Thebes, killing Laius, and bedding his mother) is acted out in a desert-like surrounding, in more or less period dress. The sexy Jocasta (Silvana Mangano) doesn’t seem to be that much older than Oedipus (Franco Citti, pictured), and their sex scenes, while not graphic, do generate some heat. The defeat of the Sphinx, which in tradition occurs by Oedipus answering a riddle, is presented here as a physical battle. When the truth of his fate begins to dawn on Oedipus, the story bogs down as he keeps denying the truth of what he has done. Citti is not a Shakespearean actor like Plummer, and tends to bounce between sullenness and hysteria, but he does have a certain physical power. Like many Pasolini films, this occasionally feels like an amateur or avant-garde production—shots held too long, use of non-pro actors (though Living Theater co-founder Julian Beck plays Tiresias)—but it’s interesting for its presentation of the entire narrative as drama rather than half of it being told as exposition. If you’re a Pasolini fan, this film will seem very familiar to you. If not, you might to stick to the British film. [DVD]

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Lew Ayres is a New York radio personality, broadcasting sports during the day and hot city news at night. During a World Series game which Detroit loses to New York, Ayres wonders why Lefty, Detroit's well-known pitcher, didn't play. It turns out that Lefty wound up in possession of a screwy five dollar bill—the picture of Lincoln had a mustache drawn on it and a code in numbers was highlighted—and even though he spent the bill, a hard-faced blonde and a ruffian were after him to get the bill back. Ayers, whose sponsor, Mr. Gordon of Gordon's Garters, thinks his ratings need a boost, takes off with his sidekick Benny Baker to crack the case before the police, which they do. This hour-long B-mystery from Columbia is about par for the course. It winds up involving a decade-old kidnapping, a criminal's widow, and $200,000 hidden somewhere in the city. Ayers, a couple of years before he started his Dr. Kildare series, makes an appealing hero, though his sidekick (pictured above on the left with Ayres on the right) is a bit too laconic and his leading lady, Florence Rice, rather bland. Lack of background music and, more importantly, lack of action, hurts the film, though one scene set in the darkened office of a cryptologist is nicely atmospheric. There's not much humor, and no real chemistry between any of the leading players, but I did like the running gag of the Chinese houseboy named McNulty. [TCM]

Saturday, January 21, 2012


This fairly standard B-crime movie starts cold with the robbery of a company's payroll of $200,000 by masked figures; later, it's revealed that the culprits are all sexy young women who bury the money for two years, then intend to split it five ways. The mastermind is nightclub owner Vera (Mara Corday); her younger sister Helen (Barbara Bostock), a singer at the club, is the getaway car driver who didn't realize until the next morning what she was involved in. There's also Agnes, the insider who knew how to time the robbery; Marie, a French hairdresser; and Joyce, a blond masseuse. Of course, as anyone who has seen TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE knows, things start to fall apart before the riches can be claimed. Agnes, certain that her bosses will find out about her part in the crime, gets a little hysterical, so Vera (in a meticulously planned scene) gasses her and makes it look like a suicide… and then there were four. A cop (Peter Mark Richman), knowing Vera and Agnes were friends, comes to the club asking questions and falls for Helen, though Vera does everything in her power to keep them apart. Meanwhile, more tensions arise between the four: Marie wants to claim her share now and Joyce is afraid that Helen will squawk to the cop, so mayhem ensues until it's just Vera and Helen… and the cop.

This isn’t exactly a good movie, but the plot and characters kept my interest. The acting is on a typical B-level, with Corday, a minor B-movie queen in the 50's, great fun. My favorite scene in the movie involves her flirtation with a new grocery delivery boy (Ronald Green, above with Corday). The boy is handsome but terribly wooden; when she asks him if he's as dependable as her previous delivery boy, he looks straight ahead and says, in a monotone, "I'm very dependable, you'll see." They grab each other around the waist and the scene fades out, though he crops up in a couple more scenes (with no lines) as her kept boy. Abby Dalton, who became a substantial TV star (Falcon Crest) is good as Agnes. The movie was directed in a drab TV-movie style by Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo in CASABLANCA). This was fun to run across on TCM's Underground. [TCM]

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Ralph Meeker and James Whitmore (pictured) were Army buddies in WWII and during a battle in the rain-drenched South Pacific, Meeker saved Whitmore's life. A few years later, Whitmore, a mechanic, is married to Meeker's sister (Nancy Davis) but Meeker is institutionalized, a victim of shellshock. He's progressed over time, but whenever it rains, Meeker goes into a hysterical panic. A nurse who has fallen for Meeker (Jean Hagen) comes to Whitmore's home and tells them that Meeker is desperate to get out of the hospital; Whitmore and Davis visit him frequently but aren't sure they’re ready to take him in, especially with two children in the house. Eventually they do and things are fine for a while, but soon tensions develop: Hagen wants Meeker to come to Oregon and work on her family's farm, but Whitmore wants him to help out at the garage, and Meeker just wants to be left alone to renovate an old boat he's bought. And of course, there's always the worry over what will happen when it rains. Of course, things come to a climax during a nighttime storm.

This is one of those serious, earnest psychological melodramas which were popular in the 50s but which haven't worn well over the years. Whitmore and Davis are OK, but they're just so anguished, and that anguish becomes each one's sole character trait. Meeker, on the other hand, gets a decent range of emotions—he's often anguished but he's also nervous and touchy and angry and sometimes funny—and he makes the movie worth seeing (and his appealing physical presence is a plus). Hagen, just before her breakout role as Lina Lamont in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, is fresh-faced and threatens to be a lively presence (she tools around in a truck and has a tomboyish appeal) but in the last third of the film, her character is reduced to little more than a footnote. The "mystery" of the rain is solved in a satisfying manner, but why no one figured it out long before is a mystery of its own. [TCM]

Monday, January 16, 2012


In the 60s, thanks to James Bond, secret agents were all the rage in the movies, and studios were searching for actors and characters who could fuel film franchises--Dean Martin as Matt Helm, James Coburn as Derek Flint, Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise. This film drags the British character of Bulldog Drummond into the psychedelic era. In a series of movies that extended from the late 20s into the early 50s, he was a former military man turned amateur detective, usually with a fiancée and a comic relief sidekick. Here, played by Richard Johnson, he's an insurance investigator; there's no steady girlfriend but there is a bumbling sidekick, a cute blond nephew (Steve Carlson, pictured above with Johnson) who's back from an extended stay in the States, and it's Carlson who gets into trouble with the females--including one scene of tied-up shirtless torture. Of course, as the title warns, all women are potentially dangerous here, and the two chief baddies are Elke Sommer and Sylvia Koscina, emissaries of an evil corporation (headed by Nigel Green) which sells its services, no questions asked, to companies who are having trouble getting megadeals sealed; their solution usually involves Sommer and Koscina assassinating someone. For a relatively low-budget film, this is surprisingly enjoyable. Johnson, who was on the short list to play Bond before Sean Connery got the part, is good, the women are sexy, and there are a few cool setpieces: a cigar that, when lit, fires a spear backward through the smoker's head; Sommer and Koscina, in bikinis, wielding harpoons; and a climactic battle on a life-sized chess set. Scott Walker sings the very Bondian theme. The widescreen print on the DVD is quite nice. [DVD]

Thursday, January 12, 2012


In the fall of 1940, socialite Anna Neagle has become persona non grata in wartime England because she's a Nazi sympathizer (and, it's implied in the opening scene, actively engaging in espionage by signaling to German warplanes), so she heads off to Canada on the S.S. Carina where she is roundly ignored except by polish refugee Albert Lieven who takes pity on her, and by Richard Greene, a Navy commander who is traveling incognito and who keeps a close eye on her. A German ship stops the liner, apparently tipped off by Neagle, and demands Greene be surrendered to them, but a planted spy is given up instead—and a feisty old passenger (Margaret Rutherford) trips the Nazi captain on his way off the ship. In Halifax, Lieven takes Neagle in and she ingratiates herself with Lieven's elderly mother and her circle of friends, despite her toasting to the "new order" when everyone else toasts to "old freedoms." Big surprise #1: Lieven is actually a Nazi spy who is in on a plan to blow up Halifax Harbor. Big surprises # 2 & 3: Neagle is actually a spy for the British who is trying to infiltrate Lieven's ring, and Greene is her contact. Big surprise #4: Guess who's the head of the Nazi spy ring?

This WWII spy thriller has a great storyline and two very good performances by Neagle and Lieven, but it's almost sunk by a generally drab treatment and a slow pace, with the film's style alternating between traditional thriller and faux-documentary, and because of that, some of the key suspense scenes are bungled. Of course, those big surprises above will not really be surprises to anyone who's seen even a couple of spy movies, but it's fun to see all the elements fall into place. Neagle does a nice job keeping her cool and acting like she's really a traitor, even after we know she's not, and Lieven conveys his character’s slippery nature quite well. Greene (pictured above with Neagle) is handsome and suitably heroic, though overshadowed by Neagle. Rutherford has an amusing moment or two. There seems to be a huge plothole near the end when Greene arrives to save Neagle mere moments after she had called him at headquarters. Unless HQ was next right next door, I have no idea how he got there so fast. The title refers (I think) to Neagle's Nazi spy code name. [TCM]

Monday, January 09, 2012


Maryland, 1930. When Southern belle Laureen's husband kills himself, Laureen and her 4-year-old daughter Emily go to live with her brother and his wife, a stable and sober couple. Laureen, still young, wants to have fun, but is burdened by everyone around her. One night, she has a mini-breakdown, begging her brother to take her daughter, whom she loudly declares she never wanted. Sadly, little Emily hears every word. By 1942, Laureen is a pious churchgoer who spends her evenings praying out loud in the kitchen. Emily is a high school girl with a reputation, though she insists when a gawky lad takes her out that she doesn't go all the way. (She does eventually let the lad make out with her, though how far they go is up to the viewer's imagination.) One night on the town, she runs across a drunken soldier passed out on the street; when she finds out that he's the son of a famous movie star, she helps get him to his apartment. They're both rather messed up—he's tried to kill himself more than once—and they wind up married and unhappy. When he gets assigned to a combat unit, he says he hopes he gets killed, and she says she hopes so, too. She has a baby she is ill equipped to take care of and begs her mother to take the child, repeating Laureen's tirade about unwanted children word for word (she eventually palms the child off on her ex-husband). By 1947, she's changed her name to Rita and is a starlet in Hollywood; the rest of the movie chronicles her rise in the business as a sex bomb (married to and soon divorced from a former boxing champion), and her accompanying collapse into drinking, pills, nervous breakdowns, and suicide attempts. The final scene, set in 1957, shows her having yet another breakdown at her mother's funeral. We're told that the doctors have said that she'll keep making movies, but she's beyond therapy; she'll never be happy or "normal."

Though the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, denied it, this story seems clearly based on the life of Marilyn Monroe (unhappy childhood, early unhappy marriage, suicide attempts, marriage to a sports figure, sex bombness, etc., not to mention the specific years of birth, first marriage, and first movie). This could have been an interesting film, and indeed the first half up to the Hollywood years is compelling. But even though the movie is not physically stagy, it has a claustrophobic feel, in that virtually everything connected with her movie career happens offscreen, and we wind up getting a series of dialogue-heavy scenes in bedrooms and living rooms with two or three people screaming at each other. Kim Stanley, a highly acclaimed stage actress, is fine but she's way too old to be playing a teenager in the middle of the film, and she's never believable as a blonde bombshell, though she might have been if we'd seen her working in front of the camera, or even among her fans. The first part of the film, which has a strong Tennessee Williams vibe, belongs to Betty Lou Holland, who is remarkable as the mother; even near the end of the film, when she comes to L.A. to help Emily out after her breakdown, she almost steals a dramatic religious conversion scene by underplaying as Stanley is overplaying. Steven Hill, who spent many years on Law & Order, is good as her first husband, as is Lloyd Bridges as the boxer (pictured above). Patty Duke has a small role as the very young Emily, and a pre-Col. Klink Werner Klemperer plays a Hollywood producer. Burt Brinckerhoff, who became an esteemed TV director, is the gawky lad, and Louise Beavers can be glimpsed in the background of a scene as a maid—apparently, several scenes were taken out of the final cut by Chayefsky (even though it was directed by John Cromwell) and I'm guessing hers was one. Overall, I'd have to rank this an interesting failure; a different lead actress and more scenes to establish Emily/Rita's talent, or lack thereof, would have helped. [TCM]

Friday, January 06, 2012


Bob Hope is a struggling writer, newly married to former model Shirley Ross. They are living in a nice Manhattan apartment in relative bliss except they're behind on the rent. Publisher Otto Kruger (a former boyfriend of Ross's) has read some chapters of Hope's book and says they show promise, but that Hope needs to concentrate more on the book and less on his work and social life. He quits his job and his wife goes back to work as a model, but it's harder to drop their fun-loving friends, including boozehound couple Charles Butterworth and Hedda Hopper, and Roscoe Karns, who has just married an older woman (Laura Hope Crews) for her money. Soon, Hope is upset over his stay-at-home house-husband role, and he's not terribly happy when Ross and Kruger seem to be getting quite friendly. When the pretty Southern belle next door starts hanging around, the stage is set for comic misunderstandings. As is often the case in romantic comedies of the era, a pregnancy solves everything.

Hope and Ross had sung "Thanks for the Memory" earlier in the year in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 and it became his signature song so it seems likely that this movie was rushed through to capitalize on the song. The script, based on a play, is OK but nothing special. What makes this worth watching are a good supporting cast and Hope's effortless comic style. Butterworth is especially good; he's usually fun to see, but here his delivery is drier and less emphatic than in his earlier films. Karns is good, too, and his early scene with Crews is a highlight of the film. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson gets a couple good lines as the building janitor. Light comedy was not Kruger's forte, but his role is small enough that he can be ignored. In addition to the title song, Hope and Ross also sing a cute song called "Two Sleepy People." [DVD]

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


Damascus during WWII is, we are told, "a breeding place of espionage and intrigue." When reporter George Sanders and his young sidekick Robert Andersen (both pictured at left) get off the plane, Andersen asks, "What is this, the Middle Ages?" and Sanders replies, "No, the Middle East, but it sometimes comes to the same thing." When they witness a lovely young woman meet an older man who had been on the plane under an assumed name, they smell a story and Andersen decides to follow up. Sanders goes on to the hotel where he meets up with Robert Armstrong, an American diplomat, and Alan Napier, the British owner of the hotel and a Nazi sympathizer. Both men, for different reasons, warn Sanders to leave, but when Andersen is found dead, knifed on the street, Sanders stays to get to the bottom of things. He has an encounter with Gene Lockhart, a spy with news about Nazi relationships with Arabs, and gets friendly with Virginia Bruce, who claims to be in the Free French movement; she is supposedly stuck in Damascus with a sickly aunt, but Sanders suspects she has other reasons for hanging around, and he’s right. It turns out that the Arab tribes are meeting to determine which side they will back; the head sheik (H.B. Warner) is throwing his support to the Allies, but the Nazis are out to subvert that, and will stop at nothing to get their way.

I suspect that this was intended as a poor man's Casablanca—Nazis in the desert, a hero in a white suit, a gambling room, and even Marcel Dalio, Rick’s croupier, crops up—but George Sanders, fine actor that he is, is no Bogart, or Errol Flynn, or even George Montgomery (who made an OK B-film Bogart-type in CHINA GIRL. He strikes no sparks with Bruce and never comes off as heroic even when he is. Still, for fans of B-wartime spy films, this has some pleasures. The elaborate hotel lobby set is atmospheric and the supporting cast is strong, particularly Armstrong and Lockhart, who both get to be ambiguous figures who could swing either way (by which I mean Allies or Nazis). Of course, none of the major Arab roles are played by Arab actors, except for Kareem, a tribal leader, played by Syrian actor Jamiel Hasson. The impressive scenes of the Arab tribes coming together in the desert in the latter half of the film are composed of bits of footage shot in the late 30s for a movie about T.E. Lawrence which was never made. [TCM]