Friday, March 30, 2012


Tom Harper is working his way through college; he wants to make a living at music and recorded a song a year ago called "The Longer I Love You," but nothing came of it; now he and his band Tom's Cats (featuring a goofy string bass player named Dog) have been hired by wealthy frat boy Carter Breed to play at a fraternity party. Before the band arrives, Carter gets some attention at the piano playing "Put the Blame on Mame" and winds up pestered by a glamorous beatnik chick who follows him around, asking questions like "Do you know Stravinsky's Petrushka?" When Tom's band performs, Carter's girlfriend Gay takes a shine to Tom, so Carter dismisses the band. That doesn't stop Gay from hanging out with Tom, and soon they're double-dating with Dog and Flip, a tomboyish sorority girl. Jealous Carter tells the prom committee that because of his father's connections, he can get Louis Prima and Keely Smith to play at the prom for free, but his dad puts the kibosh on that plan. At a pool birthday party for Gay, Tom and Carter get into a fist fight so both guys are out of Gay's good graces, but suddenly Tom's record starts getting airplay and before you know it, it's a #1 hit; suddenly he has the connections and is able to get not only Prima & Smith but Mitch Miller, Connee Boswell, Bob Crosby, and more big-name musicians for the prom. Tom and Gay & Dog and Flip are happy, and Carter tends to his wounds with the glamorous beatnik chick.

This early entry in the teen movie cycle that peaked in the 60s with Frankie and Annette isn't bad, but it's also not very interesting. The music is not rock & roll at all, it's the last gasp of the vanilla popsters of the previous generation: Crosby and Boswell peaked in the 1940s, and Mitch Miller plays an oboe, for God's sake. Prima & Smith were still popular—they perform their top 40 hit version of "That Ol' Black Magic"—but they're not exactly rock. Neither is Tom Harper, played by Paul Hampton (above left) who carved out a career as a songwriter and actor. Though Hampton's character is clearly supposed to be the good guy, he comes off as only marginally more likeable than Carter, played by Tom Laughlin (who later played Billy Jack, pictured above with his beatnik fan). The real conflict here isn't so much personality as it is class, but though we're told Hampton is working-class, he looks and acts like all the other rich frat guys in the movie. Jill Corey and Barbara Bostock and OK as Gay and Flip, and James Komack (later a producer of Welcome Back, Kotter) is decent comic relief as Dog. In addition to songs performed by the musicians, the movie is a musical with characters singing to each other on occasion—sometimes it feels like a dry run for something like BYE BYE BIRDIE. The songs are unmemorable and there are too many of them. I stuck with it mostly because Hampton and Laughlin were attractive; your mileage may vary. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

JEW SÜSS (1934)

In Wurtemberg in 1730, intolerance, particularly anti-Semitism, is rampant, but the Jewish widower Jospeh Süss Oppenheimer will do anything for power, both personal and political. His rabbi warns him away from this path, but with encouragement from his friend Landauer, he eventually insinuates himself in the inner circle of Prince Karl Alexander. When the rabbi reads Karl's palm, he says he sees a dukedom in his future, and sure enough, the old Duke dies, making the rabbi's prediction come true. Soon Süss (pronounced Zeus) is the Duke's financial advisor and becomes a powerful figure in his own right, knowing how to curry favor: when Süss is called upon to help the Duke get the attention of the lovely Marie Auguste, he does so even though he loves her himself. When a man blames a Jew for killing a young girl for her blood (to use in Passover rituals), Süss goes to the Duke to ask him to pardon the man, even threatening to quit his position, and the Duke reluctantly issues the pardon. When the Duke meets Süss's young daughter Naomi, he tries to seduce her; she goes running away from him across a roof and falls to her death (whether it's an accident or a suicide is unclear). Süss holds his torment inside, but when the Duke levies punishing taxes on the people and begins scheming with subversives to abolish Parliament, Süss rebels, calling the Duke "an absurd lump of flesh—totally ridiculous." The Duke's reaction is to drop dead of a heart attack. Without the Duke's protection, Süss is arrested for subversion and for having carnal knowledge of Gentile women. He is offered a deal: renounce his Judaism or die. Despite the fact that he has recently learned that his father was not Jewish but Christian, Süss refuses the deal and goes to his death.

This movie is based on a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger which was also the basis for the notorious 1940 German film of the same title, a piece of viciously anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda which turns the story on its head and makes Süss a murdering, raping villain. In this film, Süss is not heroic or likeable, but is mostly sympathetic; you understand his frustration with his station in life and with the fact that all the power he manages to get hold of doesn't save him from misery and prejudice. Conrad Veidt is excellent in the lead role, never pandering for easy feel-good sympathy from the audience. Cedric Hardwicke (pictured above with Veidt on the left) is almost chilling as the somewhat scary rabbi, and German actor Paul Graetz is fine as Landauer. Pamela Ostrer, later Pamela Mason, the wife of James Mason, is appropriately delicate as Naomi. The look of the film is interesting, bordering on expressionism with interesting use of shadows and odd camera angles. A rarity that is worth catching. [TCM]

Monday, March 26, 2012


During WWII, three British agents and a Frenchman (James Mason, with an artificial accent) sneak into occupied France to bring back information about German forces. They meet up with members of the local resistance and Mason's family takes them in, though his sister (Carla Lehmann) thinks resistance is futile and isn't happy about their mission, wanting Mason to stay. A man whom the villagers think of as a collaborator proves to be a help to the British; he gets two of them (Hugh Williams and Roland Culver), disguised as champagne salesmen, in to see Gestapo brass to get direct info. This rather plain B-grade British-made wartime thriller isn't very thrilling, though there are a few stand-out moments. One of the men (Michael Wilding) reunites with his French wife and reluctantly agrees to have sex with her "for king and country." There's a truck that drives around all hours of the day and night, playing loud German militaristic music, which winds up playing an important role in the climactic chase sequence involving our agents getting a detained British soldier out with them. Not really a bad movie, but not memorable; Mason's accent is so bad, I thought for sure that it was a plot point and that it would turn out he was actually not French. [TCM]

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Cary Grant is a plastic surgeon who runs a Parisian spa and has his own radio show. Genevieve Tobin is Grant's masterpiece, the plain wife of Edward Everett Horton whom he has turned into a vision of loveliness. He doesn't really love her, seeing himself more as her Pygmalion, but Horton is unhappy that Tobin is no longer the woman he married and he divorces her, naming Grant as the co-respondent. Meanwhile Grant’s plain secretary (Helen Mack), who keeps the spa running like clockwork and has a crush on Grant, gets fed up with him and starts an affair with Horton. Tobin gets Grant to marry her by threatening to destroy his "masterpiece" by getting fat. The other important character is Lucien Littlefield, a struggling research scientist who wants Grant to go into business with him. When, on their honeymoon, Grant sees Tobin with cold cream slathered on her face to keep up her beauty regimen, he decides Mack is really the girl for him after all, and everything gets sorted out eventually, with a climactic Keystone Kops-like car chase in Paris that also manages to involve dozens of reproducing rabbits. This is a light comedy in the Astaire-Rogers mold, and Grant even gets to sing a couple of songs. Nothing special, but light and frothy fun. [DVD]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A small group of people board a plane bound for China, run into heavy weather, and crash in the ocean. Most of them make it to a small island and hope to be found by a passing ship. Madge Evans, who is going to work at a Red Cross hospital, is the only one who doesn’t seem to have a secret agenda. Charlotte Wynters is traveling under an assumed name, though everyone seems to know who she is: an heiress who is running away from union problems at her factories. Two competing weapon makers and a senator (Gene Lockhart) are trying to sell arms to China. Tough moll Marion Martin is hiding out so she can’t testify at a trial. Gangster Bruce Cabot is on the run with thousands of dollars. An older woman (Nana Bryant) is heading to Shanghai to find her son whom she hasn't heard from in a year. The group quickly discovers that they are not alone: John Boles and his Chinese manservant are living there, by choice apparently. He informs them that the island is hundreds of miles away from any shipping lanes or air routes and, even though he has a small boat, he has no intention of taking them anywhere on it, so they need to learn to get along. Clearly, Boles has a secret, too. Some members of the group don't mind staying on the island, and they quickly set up a system of building huts and making food, but others, including the munitions men, will try anything to get off.

This forgotten, hard-to-find movie is essentially director James Whale's version of Gilligan's Island, and is much better than most critics give it credit for. Boles (who is usually a bit too wooden for my taste) and Cabot (at left) are very good in the male leads, and the fact that Cabot is shirtless for much of the film is an added bonus. Martin, whose work I am unfamiliar with, is suitably brassy as the blond moll, and strikes some sparks with Cabot. The snaky ways some of the plotlines get entangled are clever: Boles has a connection with Bryant's son, and the heiress with labor problems threatens to go "on strike" because she doesn't like the work schedule. Willie Fung adopts a ridiculously broad stereotype as the manservant, but he gets to engage in some heroics near the end—though the actual staging of the heroics is inept. Boles has a cockatoo which gets in a couple of cute lines; when one character says something bitchy to another character, the cockatoo says, "Meow!" Some critics seem to dislike this because it's not up to Whale's standards, and while it's true that the direction is workmanlike, it's still an enjoyable B-picture. Pictured at top are Lockhart, Wynters, Boles, Martin, and Cabot. [YouTube]

Friday, March 16, 2012

PYRO (1964)

Fernando Hilbeck (pictured) walks through a crowd at a carnival and, in voiceover, spins a tortured metaphor about life as a Ferris wheel, and memory as a mirror, then a dagger, then the phantoms of memory turning to smoke, etc. In flashback, he relates the story of an acquaintance of his, an engineer (Barry Sullivan) who found inspiration in the shape (and metaphors) of the Ferris wheel for a generator he designed. He takes his family to Spain to oversee the project and falls in love with crazy Martha Hyer; they meet when he discovers her trying to set fire to her own house in order to claim insurance money. On the spot, he offers to buy the house, then they have sex. "Silence is my only weapon"; he replies, "Be careful—silence can be a dangerous weapon" (whatever that means). Eventually, Sullivan breaks things off, but the jealous Hyer sets fire to his house, killing his wife and daughter and leaving Sullivan horribly burned. He vows revenge against Hyer and soon has joined up with a traveling carnival, wearing a latex mask that hides his disfigurement and working as a Ferris wheel repairman. Hilbeck meets up with him and figures out who he is, and when Hyer re-enters the picture, a fiery climax is guaranteed.

This Spanish-made film presents itself as horror (it was released under various titles, including "The Thing Without a Face" and "A Cold Wind from Hell") but it's really a somewhat disjointed domestic revenge thriller, in the Fatal Attraction mold. Hyer and Hilbeck are fine; Sullivan, past his prime, always seems a bit fatigued—the younger Hilbeck might have been a better fit for the part. The purple dialogue is fun; in addition to the lines quoted above, we get a cop reporting on the search for the fugitive Hyer: "We can’t find her—Hell must have swallowed her up." It's an ultra-cheapie production (the print on the Troma DVD is not a pristine one; it might be more impressive if it were restored), but it has its moments. [DVD]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Cary Grant is a cocky flier working on perfecting techniques for "flying blind," the ability to fly in fog, darkness, or storms; he flies with his windshield covered, using only his instruments to guide him. Myrna Loy is a stunt pilot whom we first see doing skywriting over a beach, though she yearns to do more. Because of her manager's loud mouth, a trip Grant planned on making to Paris to show off his techniques is cancelled because the Feds think he's just after cheap publicity. Loy talks him going ahead anyway, but in a freak accident just before he's ready to go, he is blinded while lighting a stove. The docs say the blindness may be temporary, but that doesn't help him not feel sorry for himself. Loy buys him a seeing-eye dog, gets him writing articles on flying (when they're not accepted, she lies and tells him they have been), and secretly bankrolls his continuing experiments with navigation tools. To raise more money for Grant, Loy undertakes a stunt flight from Moscow to New York, but as she nears Boston, she is "blinded" by thick fog while low on fuel and Grant decides to go up to help guide her down.

This is an early leading role for Grant and he handles it nicely, with a casual, light-on-his-feet performance, the kind that he would no longer give once he became a superstar. Clark Gable's early performances feel the same way to me; while they aren't Oscar-winning parts, they are fun to watch, and it feels like the actors were having fun doing them. Grant and Loy work well together, though they don't get much time for romancing here. In support, Dean Jagger fares best as a Federal aviation man who is sympathetic to Grant's situation; there's also Roscoe Karnes doing his usual bit as Loy's comically irritating manager and Hobart Cavanaugh as Grant's assistant. A solid not-quite A-level programmer. [DVD]

Monday, March 12, 2012


Sir Percy Blakeney is back as the foppish British dandy who moonlights as the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, a daring rescuer of French aristocrats during the Revolution. Leslie Howard played him in the original film; he’s a hard act to follow, and Barry K. Barnes doesn't even seem to be trying, but he's adequate, just like the rest of the cast and the movie around him. This sequel begins with a nice cross-cutting sequence contrasting the ghoulish cheering at the guillotine in Paris with the more reserved high spirits at a game of cricket in England at which Sir Percy plays quite well. His wife Marguerite (Sophie Stewart) is pregnant and wants him to avoid his heroic activities for a time, but Chauvelin is under pressure from Robespierre to trap the Pimpernel, and Marguerite is kidnapped to bring Sir Percy out in the open. Robespierre, chief architect of the Terror, goes power-mad, threatening even those closest to him. Luckily, at least one of Robespierre’s chums has become a double agent and is secretly aiding Sir Percy. The plot this time around is more convoluted but also more interesting, and the supporting cast, including James Mason in an early role, is very good. This is a lower-budgeted affair than the 1934 film, but the shadowy, claustrophobic sets add to the dangerous atmosphere. There's a clever bit involving the "damned elusive Pimpernel" verse from the first movie, and Barnes gets in an amusing bit when he disguises himself as an elderly deaf war hero. One of Percy's disguises makes him look like a big-nosed Donald Sutherland. Not up the standards of the first film, but highly watchable. [DVD]

Sunday, March 11, 2012


This comic fantasy became a famous running gag for its star Jack Benny, who later claimed it was a huge flop of a stinker which ruined his movie career. It was in fact his last starring vehicle in movies, though he went on to a huge career in radio and TV. And while it's not a great movie (for one very obvious reason I'll get to later), it's more than watchable. Benny is an out-of-tune trumpet player for a radio show orchestra. During a late night music show, sponsored by Paradise Coffee (advertised as a sleep aid!!), Benny falls asleep and dreams that he's an angel sent down to Earth by the Chief (Guy Kibbee) to blow the Last Trumpet, the call that will signal the destruction of the planet (in this movie's theological scheme, Earth is just one insignificant peopled planet among millions). He arrives via a cosmic elevator which deposits him in New York's Hotel Universe, but his plan to blow his horn at midnight from the roof of the high-rise hotel is foiled when he saves a cigarette girl (Dolores Moran) from killing herself. When he fails to sound the note, Kibbee threatens to declare Benny a fallen angel, stranding him on Earth, so heavenly secretary Alexis Smith goes down the elevator to try and find out what's happened and help Benny get a second chance to redeem himself. Also in the mix: two fallen angels (Allyn Joslyn and John Alexander) and a slick jewel thief (Reginald Gardiner), whom the angels hire to steal Benny's trumpet to save the Earth.

One of several fantasies of the WWII era to imagine a bureaucratic Heaven and angels who interact with humans (HERE COMES MR. JORDAN and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE being the two best-known), this one is pretty much straightforward slapstick comedy, and several setpieces, such as Moran's attempted suicide and the wild climax on the hotel roof (which involves a gigantic Paradise Coffee sign with an oversized, mechanical coffee pot, cup, and sugar spoon) are quite fun indeed. The Heaven effects are good, particularly the infinite-looking angelic orchestra (pictured). All the actors seem to be having a good time, especially Benny, Gardiner, and Franklin Pangborn as a harried hotel clerk--though the lovely Alexis Smith hasn't much to do. The film effectively uses the OZ gimmick of having everyone in "real life" (mostly members of the orchestra) be characters in the dream. What the film is missing, which keeps it from being anything more than a fun diversion, is a total lack of any narrative or emotional resonance. The whole thing is just the dream of a second-rate trumpet player: no reason is given for the destruction of the Earth, and equally, no reason given for the human race to be saved. The dream narrative comes to no logical conclusion; Benny just wakes up at midnight and delivers a final punch line about the likelihood of his dream being made into a movie. With no narrative heft and no truly rounded characters, it ends up feeling like an extended comedy sketch. Still, it has a fast pace and some very clever musical cues here and there, and it's fun for fans of Benny and of afterlife fantasies. [TCM]

Thursday, March 08, 2012


It's July 1944, just a month after D-Day, and the Allies are making a push through France hoping to break through the Siegfried Line into Germany. The men in Lt. Rawson's tank platoon are gung-ho about their mission until their beloved Sgt. Davis is seriously injured during a battle with a German tank. He is replaced by the cocky showoff Sgt. Sullivan (Steve Cochran); virtually all the men clash with him over one thing or another. But Rawson respects his abilities enough to let him pick his own driver, a drunkard named Tucker (George O'Hanlon, later the voice of George Jetson) who vows to stay off the sauce until they get on German soil. This choice pisses off Davis' driver Kolowicz (Paul Picerni) who becomes Sullivan's chief adversary. Other platoon members we get to know include a German-American soldier known affectionately as "Heinie," the radio man who is nicknamed "Marconi," the blustery mechanic Lemcheck, and his wet-behind-the-ears assistant Pvt. George "Ike" Eisenhower (James Dobson). After a particularly dangerous battle which pits the American 75-mm guns against the superior German 88s, Ike runs away through the rain to find a general to complain to. He has the luck to meet up with the friendly Col. Matthews who listens to Ike and tells him that the Allies have tanks with 90-mm guns on the way, and the first one he gets, he'll send to Ike. Sure enough, weeks later, such a tank arrives with a note delivering it to Ike. As the platoon moves on, Sullivan slowly changes his reckless behavior, to the point where he risks his own life heading out to save Marconi, who had himself engaged in a risky maneuver to save his platoon. Eventually, they get into Germany, where Tucker allows himself some champagne, Heinie makes contact with his grandparents, and Sullivan is recommended for a promotion.

This is an average B-war film which uses stock footage for most of its big battle scenes, though a couple of the tank fights are staged effectively. The cast of characters is the usual mix of types, and certain characters go through their predictable changes of attitude, especially Sullivan and Kolowicz. Steve Cochran (pictured above on the left) looks like a WWII hero-type, but I don't know what's up with his speaking voice—it's like he’s trying to do an American regional accent but never settled on one so he ends up sounding just theatrically bombastic. Dobson (at right) gives a good performance as the naïve but not stupid runt of the litter. Picerni and Carey are also good in their stock roles. The screenplay was based on a story by future cult director Sam Fuller. The biggest surprise for me was that [SPOILER] none of the main characters die; even the wounded sergeant from the beginning apparently recovers. [TCM]

Monday, March 05, 2012


Robert Armstrong, a American tourist in London, wants to get a taste of real English life; while he's wandering around in a thick London fog, he winds up in a big, seemingly deserted house and finds a dead body in a chair. He races out to the street and bumps into Englishman Tyrell Davis, but when they return to the house, the body is gone and the man of the house (Henry Stephenson) and his wife insist they've been there all along. Stephenson's niece, Helen Mack, who has only just arrived for a visit from Canada and hasn't seen her uncle in years, tries to comfort Armstrong, when who should show up but the corpse in the chair (Ralph Bellamy) who tells the two that he's a secret agent who is about to expose Stephenson as a fraud and a thief. Bellamy gets Armstrong, Mack, and a friendly cat burglar (Roland Young) to help him, but soon it becomes clear that Bellamy may not be a good guy at all. Who can Armstrong and Mack trust? Is anyone telling the truth? This is a light-hearted thriller which reminded me a Hitchcock film from the year before, NUMBER SEVENTEEN, with its limited sets (a couple of row houses), people sneaking in and out of said houses, nobody being quite who they seem to be, and even a bungling burglar. Armstrong, who was fairly wooden in KING KONG, is peppier here, and he and Mack make a nice pair; Young is fun as always. The plot twists are fairly predictable but are still fun to follow. (Pictured are Armstrong and Mack, with Bellamy in the mirror.) [TCM]

Friday, March 02, 2012


Jeanne is a bored wife and mother who lives out in the country. Henri, her husband, a newspaper publisher, is occupied with his job and benignly ignores her, so she takes frequent trips to Paris to stay with her cosmopolitan friend Maggie and while there, carries on a rather perfunctory affair with Raoul, a celebrity polo player. Henri doesn’t approve of her Paris friends, and one night, during a drunken row, he insists that she invite Maggie and Raoul to spend a night in the country with them. On the day of the visit, Jeanne's car breaks down and a handsome young man named Bernard helps her. At first she seems almost scornful of him, but when he agrees to drive her to her house, she warms up a bit. At dinner that night, Bernard is mostly an observer as the other four chat and bicker. Restless, Jeanne gets up in the middle of the night and goes for a moonlit walk, runs into Bernard, and they have a romantic episode that leads to canoodling in a canoe, splashing naked in a tub, and eventually having sex. The next morning, he impulsively asks her to leave with him, and she impulsively says yes, so they drive off, giving no explanations to anyone, into an uncertain future.

This film from early in director Louis Malle's career was an art-house hit in America mostly because of the scandalous nocturnal lovemaking of Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau) and Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). Not only do we get a glimpse of Moreau's nipple, but later the camera remains on her face as Bory's head slides down her torso out of camera range, and her face registers non-exaggerated ecstasy. Nowadays, this would practically be rated PG-13, but still, there is a certain erotic frisson in the lush, romantic slowness of the entire episode. The ambiguous ending prefigures THE GRADUATE, as we see the dawning realization of what the two have done on their faces, and they're not quite smiling. The acting is fine and the photography of the nighttime escapade is atmospheric, if perhaps a bit too bright—a fault of the day-for-night shooting. Some fine dialogue: Henri, to Maggie about her promiscuous lifestyle: "You feel younger sleeping in some stranger's love nest or deathbed?"; Maggie: "I don't think about that—I just try not to clash with what's in style." [DVD]