Monday, December 31, 2012


After caring for her ailing parents then having them both die, Andrea King, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is sent out West for a rest cure and meets the charming Helmut Dantine, a doctor of what would today be called alternative medicine (though, as he is at pains to point out, he is not an M.D.). They hit it off and are married within a week. Soon, King realizes that Dantine may be hiding some unsavory secrets: on their honeymoon, a man tries to shoot him (he blames Dantine's care or lack thereof for his wife's recent death) and two men are following him; then, when they head to his home in San Francisco, she finds out that he lives with his unfriendly sister, her crippled adult son (John Alvin) and Dantine's own sickly young son by a previous marriage. The topper, so she thinks, is that he is caught up in a nasty divorce proceeding—the two men following him are working for the ex-wife's lawyers—but there's actually something even worse: Dantine may be slowly poisoning his little boy. The plot and characters are interesting but the movie's low-budget prevents this from being the Hitchcockian thriller it wants to be. King and Dantine are both wooden—though at least Dantine looks creepy enough when he has to; the best acting is done by Alvin as the sister's son and William Prince as the lawyer. Dantine's health-food regimen is ahead of its time, though here it's shown to do more harm than good. The movie has its moments but by the home stretch, it's a bit of a slog. And the title has nothing to do with the movie, until they try really hard to make it mean something in the fade-out. [TCM]

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Jerry, a wounded WWI soldier and rich playboy, sneaks away from his hospital boat while it's docked in New York City to rendezvous with his fiancée Anne, but finds out that she's dumped him for someone else. Later (could be days, weeks or months, it's unclear) at a party he's throwing at his Manhattan mansion, he hires Dot, a "party girl," to be his companion for the evening. When they run into Anne, she says that Dot is pretty "in a shoddy way," and the drunken Jerry tells her that he's going to marry Dot. That night, he does; the next morning he tries to pay her off to get a divorce but she says no. Jerry heads off to his Arizona ranch; when Dot finds him, he tells her he only has six months to live. What follows is a see-sawing game of "I want you/I don’t want you" between the two which is finally resolved in a courtroom. 

John Gilbert's talkies have gotten a bad rap, and like many early 30s movies, they haven’t all aged particularly well, but Gilbert himself is just fine here. The script doesn't give the characters much motivation for the silly hoops they have to jump through, and if this had been made a few years later, it might have been turned into an amusing screwball comedy like BRINGING UP BABY or THE PALM BEACH STORY. Gilbert makes for a sympathetic cad; Lois Moran is fine as the confused Dot whose past is unclear—she admits to being a bit of a gold digger, but takes umbrage at hints that she's "easy"; El Brendal gets the thankless comic relief role of Gilbert's Swedish sidekick; Ralph Bellamy is a ranch hand who falls for Dot. The oddest scene involves Brendal and Asian ranch cook Willie Fung trying to communicate with each other through belly-rubbing—get a room, guys! The acting and look of the film are A-level, but the script and direction are strictly from B-movie talent. And speaking of B-movies, the handsome Kane Richmond, later known for his roles in adventure serials, has a small role here. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is a rich man spending Christmas Eve alone in his big house, listening to old Andrews Sisters records, lost in memories of his son Marley, a soldier who was killed in a Christmas battle during WWII. He's a strict isolationist who blames American idealism for getting us into foreign wars and getting his son killed; he's against the United Nations, and has recently hurt the career of a professor at a local university who had become involved in an exchange program with a university in Poland. His nephew Fred (Ben Gazarra) arrives to try to get him to change his mind about the program. They argue about international affairs; Fred says we need the U.N.'s diplomacy because as long as countries are talking, they're not fighting, but Grudge says that butting in and trying to help what he snarlingly calls "the needy and oppressed" of other countries just gets us into wars, and is instead in favor of the stance of "mutually assured destruction," in which all sides have enough weapons to destroy each other and so theoretically won't use them. After Fred leaves, Grudge has a vision of his dead son seated at the dinner table and suddenly finds himself with the Ghost of Christmas Past, a WWI soldier (Steve Lawrence) on a transport ship full of dead soldiers. Grudge is taken back to his own past as an officer in post-war Hiroshima where he and a nurse (Eva Marie Saint) visit a doctor who is caring for several young women whose eyes and faces were burned away when they looked up at the blast. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) takes him to a camp full of starving displaced persons. In a vision of the future, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Robert Shaw) shows him a post-nuclear civilization which has adopted Grudge's belief against getting involved with others; a madman called the Imperial Me (Peter Sellers) espouses his philosophy of killing off other bands of survivors, followed by killing each other off until only one Me will be left. Of course, if you know your Dickens, you can guess how Grudge's philosophy changes the next morning.

This adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is quite unusual in many respects. It was produced as a TV-movie and aired only once, sponsored by Xerox and blatantly presented as propaganda for the United Nations. Written by Twilight Zone's Rod Serling in his heavily didactic mode, it was the only television work directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (ALL ABOUT EVE, CLEOPATRA). It's stagy but imaginatively shot and well-acted, the biggest surprise being singer Steve Lawrence (pictured above left with Hayden) who does a very nice job with Serling's preachy dialogue. Sellers (pictured) is a bit over-the-top (as is the entire future segment) but that's partly because he's not a character but a stand-in for an idea—isolationism taken to a personal extreme. The Christmas aspect of the plot is relatively minor, and Grudge's transformation at the end is not played with giddy joy—in fact, his change is much more subtle than Ebenezer Scrooge's, and not one that Grudge seems happy about. Perhaps the most you could say is that he becomes more tolerant of both his nephew Fred and the United Nations. I remember seeing ads for this show when I was a child and because of Serling's involvement, wanted to see it but didn't. I’ve been waiting over forty years, and thanks to Turner Classic Movies airing over this holiday season, I can cross this off my need-to-see list. If not exactly a classic, it is interesting and intermittently compelling. [TCM]

Monday, December 24, 2012


Over the past few years (as I'm sure I've said on this blog before), it has been difficult to find good Christmas movies.  The ones in theaters are all either bloated overdone kids movies (some OK, like ELF, some bad, like THE POLAR EXPRESS) or snarky plastic confections (the SANTA CLAUSE movies, CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS). The made-for-cable movies, which I’ve been reviewing on my blog for the past few years, are mostly sappy romances; they're watchable but forgettable. On my shelf of must-watch Christmas DVDs (about twenty), the most recent one is THE REF from 1994. It seems that now I must turn to independent Christian filmmakers for interesting Christmas movies. A few years ago I discovered a religious indie called NOELLE, which I reviewed on my other blog and which I liked very much. This year, I found MIDNIGHT CLEAR. It sat in my Netflix streaming queue for months, having two strikes against it: it was made by Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry B. Jenkins, the fundamentalist Christian co-author of the "Left Behind" series, and it stars a Baldwin brother other than Alec.  But I finally got around to watching it and am pleased to report that it has earned a place on my Christmas DVD shelf.

It takes place on Christmas Eve and focuses on the separate but related stories of five characters in a small Texas town. Lefty (Stephen Baldwin, pictured below)) has hit bottom: he's a divorced homeless alcoholic who has just been fired from a factory job and his ex-wife's lawyers are threatening to ban him from seeing his kids. Eva (K Callan (Clark Kent's mother on Lois & Clark) is an older woman who is alone at Christmas—though she has told people that she has family coming in—and is preparing to commit suicide with an overdose of prescription pills. Mary (Mary Thornton) is a wife and mother whose husband Rick suffered brain damage a year ago in a car accident and is in a long-term nursing facility; she's coping but is angry that so few members of the community have even tried to visit Rick, who is not in a coma but who is essentially non-communicative. Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis) was in the accident with Rick but not hurt badly; still, he misses his buddy's leadership with the church youth group of which he is now in charge, and is not happy that his pastor is making them go caroling, targeting folks who haven't been to church in a while. We don’t find out much about the fifth character Kirk (Kirk B.R. Woller) except that he runs a small gas station & convenience store outside of town and doesn't like his life very much—when folks come in and say "Merry Christmas" to him, his reply is an unenthusiastic "Yup." In the trend of recent indie films, most of the characters cross paths at some point. As Mary and her son are on the way out of town to spend Christmas with her family, her car breaks down in front of Kirk's shop and she tries to get him to help her out.  Mitch and the carolers wind up their unsuccessful evening of trying to get people back to church by calling on Eva. And so on. The stories have upbeat endings, even if they're not the endings that the characters would wish for.

Jenkins based this on a short film he made which itself was based on a short story by his father, and for all the unsubtle messages associated with writers of Rapture fiction, this (or at least this version of the original material) is surprisingly low-key. Though some of the characters are churchgoers, and the film's climax is set at Christmas Eve service, I don't recall Jesus being mentioned once. There are no angels, no fiery epiphanies, and no sermonizing (not even any snow, and very few seasonal decorations); and not all of the characters wind up at church in the end. As one critic noted, this is a very humanist Christmas story, all about making connections with people and the different ways in which a helping hand can be given (and received). Kirk's story has virtually no tie to the church, and Lefty's and Mary's only tangentially. The acting is good all around. That Callen can pluck your heartstrings with just a look and a pause is no surprise. Thornton is also very good; Jarvis (above left) has the least to do but is fine; Woller is, from start to finish, stuck in a very taciturn Gary Cooper-ish mold but he does what he can to hint at his character's inner feelings. The real surprise is how good Baldwin is. It's largely his movie to carry, at least in the first half, and he's excellent at conveying the emptiness and confusion inside Lefty which leads him, like Eva, to a suicide attempt which is the most powerful scene in the movie. We don’t know enough about his character to really sympathize with him—he seems to have brought on all of his problems himself—but we do empathize with his plight. Loneliness and/or loss are at the core of all the stories here, and somewhat predictably, it is someone else reaching out that helps the lonely people begin to heal. Still, despite the predictability of the outcomes, the way they all begin to rebound is sometimes surprising. The movie is not a comedy, but there are occasional light touches; at one point, when a seedy guy is very secretively selling Baldwin a gun in his garage, Baldwin says, "Why so dramatic? Are we on TV?"  I hate to oversell this, but at the least, it's a solid non-romance, non-kiddie Christmas story that should satisfy most fans of the season.  [DVD]

Friday, December 21, 2012


Rich socialite Joan Bennett is called away from a party to the morgue to ID her sister, who killed herself. She goes to the man she thinks is responsible (Sidney Blackmer) and after being egged on by him, shoots him dead, then drives her car off of a ferryboat, making it look like she committed suicide. But instead, she changes her hair color and identity and goes to Hawaii. When clues crop up that she's alive and well, playboy detective Fredric March is sent along with somewhat bumbling detective Ralph Bellamy to Hawaii to find her and bring her to justice. They go from Hawaii to Saigon to Singapore, and are soon joined by March's secretary (Ann Sothern) who wants to claim the reward for catching Bennett for herself. Meanwhile, March meets up with Bennett and they fall in love; even Sothern, who finagles a job as Bennett's personal assistant, comes to like Bennett. With another cop breathing down their necks, Bennett gives herself up, but back in the States, March works feverishly to try and prove her innocence. This is an overlooked little gem of a romantic comedy/mystery, not manic enough to be a screwball, but with an energetic cast and a witty screenplay—Dorothy Parker and her husband worked on the script. The solution to the mystery feels a bit rushed, but otherwise, this is fun and worth watching. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Argentinean horse owner Don Diego (Henry Stephenson) sends his son Ricardo (Don Ameche) to New York to sell some horses, but instructs him not to sell any to Binnie Crawford (Charlotte Greenwood) because of a betrayal he suffered years ago at the hands of her brother. Once there, Ricardo is smitten by the lovely Glenda who wants to buy Don Diego's prize horse Carmelita, but just as he's about to finalize the sale, he discovers that Glenda is Binnie's niece and stops the deal but doesn't tell her why. Perturbed, she, accompanied by Aunt Binnie, follows him back to Argentina where shenanigans, misunderstandings, and musical numbers occur until this Romeo & Juliet couple finally get together. This lightweight musical is the first of the Fox Technicolor musicals of the 40s, the first big-budget movie to feature Betty Grable as a lead, and contains the first appearance of Carmen Miranda, who appears as herself—she has no dialogue, sings two nightclub numbers, and vanishes from the movie. The romance is clearly inspired by the Astaire/Rogers musicals but there are too many odd and unmotivated plot twists, and I never really cared much if Grable and Ameche got together. But Grable (pictured) is lovely and dances well, and Ameche is dashing and nails his accent for which I give him bonus points. Leonid Kinskey is amusing as a gigolo who squires Greenwood around Buenos Aries, and J. Carroll Naish has a small but important role as a horse trainer. I found some of the broken English dialogue amusing: "Allow me to deduce myself"; "He has a memory to forget" (about a forgetful person); a hotel room is described as having "a beautiful look over the city." The Nicholas Brothers provide, as they often did, the real highlight of the movie with their athletic dancing. The colorful DVD print is gorgeous. [DVD]

Friday, December 14, 2012


Manderson, a rich American businessman living in England, is found dead in the garden of his estate, an apparent suicide. Crime reporter Philip Trent sneaks into Manderson's mansion and, with the implicit permission of Inspector Murch, begins his own investigation. Manderson's widow Margaret mentions that her late husband had been moody lately; is it because he suspected that she was having an affair with Marlow, one of his trusted private secretaries? Bunner, the other secretary, testifies at the inquest that Manderson was about to fire Marlow, but was it really Bunner he didn't trust? Had there been threatening letters from someone? And what about Cupples, Margaret's seemingly harmless uncle, whom the butler overheard arguing with Manderson the night before his death? Margaret finally tells Trent that her husband caught her and Marlow kissing and that's why he killed himself. But could Marlow have killed Manderson, then gone to great lengths to make it look like suicide? Or could Margaret have done it herself? Eventually, a long flashback scene shows us most of what really happened, though in a clever twist, it turns out that there is one last puzzle piece needed to wrap the case up.

This is based on a 1920s novel famous for being one of the first satires of the detective genre, but this version, though fairly light in tone, is hardly satirical; the screenplay makes it into just another B-mystery, albeit one acted quite good-naturedly with a standout performance by Orson Welles as Manderson, not seen until the lengthy flashback sequence begins an hour into the 90-minute movie. As usual, Welles makes the most of his screen time, pretty much wiping everyone else into the dustbin. Michael Wilding is cheerful but unmemorable as Trent, and the lovely Margaret Lockwood (pictured with Wilding) never gets a handle on her character. John McCallum is a little better as Marlow, but more fun are Hugh McDermott as the possibly unreliable Bunner and Miles Malleson as Cupples who plays a surprisingly crucial role in the case. There is never much at stake here, but the film is mildly enjoyable and gets even better when Welles arrives. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In the Lancashire countryside, three siblings (Kathy, Nan and Charles, who live on a farm with their widowed father and his spinsterish sister) follow a farmhand down to the river and save the three kittens he had chucked into a burlap bag for drowning. On their way home, Charles asks a Salvation Army sister if she would like one of the kittens; she says no, but that Jesus will surely take care of it. The kids put the kittens in a box in the barn and when Charles says that Jesus will help, Kathy replies that Jesus can’t because he's dead. But that night when Kathy goes out to check on the kittens, she finds a bearded stranger asleep in the hay. She says, "Who is it?" and he awakens with a start and mutters, "Jesus Christ." Thinking he actually is Jesus, returned to the world, she keeps his existence a secret, afraid he'll be crucified again, and sneaks bread and wine out to him. Charles quits believing early on when he finds his kitten dead ("He’s not Jesus, he's just a fella," he says) but soon the word gets out to other schoolchildren who flock to see him, wanting to hear him tell Bible stories. He's actually an escaped and wounded murderer, and he tells them not to tell the adults about his presence. Eventually, though, word gets out and, in a wonderfully shot final sequence, masses of children race the police to the barn to see what fate this Jesus will meet.

One thing that makes this film worth watching is its tone. Some critics call this an allegory, which I don't think is quite right, but it's also about childhood innocence and it could have run the risk of being too sticky-sweet or sad. As it is, it captures quite nicely the childlike feeling that there might really be magic in the world, and the awareness that adults are all too likely to snuff that magic out. The general mood of the film is a balance between seriousness and whimsy; most of the interactions between the children and adults outside of their family is quietly humorous. The scenes with the stranger always have an undertone of danger; even though he never hurts the kids, he retains a feel of potential menace and never becomes a figure of fun or sentiment. Alan Bates does a nice job in the part, mostly acting with his eyes as he has little dialogue and no chance to build up a character as we learn almost nothing about him except that he killed someone. The other reason to see this film, something which contributes greatly to the film's tone, is the acting of the children. Hayley Mills (pictured with Bates) is very good, if a few years too old, as Kathy, but she occasionally feels a bit artificial next to the very natural performances of the non-pros playing her siblings: Diane Holgate as Nan and especially Alan Barnes as Charles who steals most of his scenes with his delightful performance. [YouTube; the print that has been posted is from a VHS tape and is not the ideal way to see the movie—many tracking problems and yellow and green smears throughout on the black & white picture—but this has not been released on a region 1 DVD as of this writing]

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Just as British subject Bill Howard is about to complain to the Emir of Kazra about the theft of his camel, the ruler is assassinated by two sheiks who are trying to destabilize the region. Howard finds the Emir's body and is accused of the murder. He escapes, disguised in Bedouin garb, and takes refuge with a British man resting in the marketplace.  Howard talks the man, Richard Fraser, into pretending that Howard is his servant. This gets Howard out of the country, but an international incident develops, and the two sheiks come to England demanding satisfaction, threatening an all-out war in Kazra unless certain economic demands are met. They also plan on bringing a Kazran prince who is being schooled in England back and setting him up as a puppet ruler. As it happens, Richard's twin brother Lorimer is the Foreign Secretary in charge of the talks. Lorimer is a tedious stuffed shirt whose public stance makes the situation worse, so with Howard's help, Richard connives to take Lorimer's place at the talks, hoping to expose the sheiks as assassins.

Despite the seriousness of the plotline, this is basically a comedy with the wonderful George Arliss doing double duty as the twin brothers (both pictured above). As Lorimer, Arliss makes a perfect pompous ass, and as Richard, he gets to do his usual shtick of helping folks out of bad situations and even doing a little matchmaking (between Howard and Lorimer's secretary). Romilly Lunge is blandly handsome as Howard, Rene Ray is sweet and cute as the secretary, and a young, exotic looking fellow named John Ford, in his only screen credit, plays the Kazran prince. Arliss is wonderful as always. If you don’t already know his work, this might be a good place to start if you can find it; it's a public domain movie which doesn't seem to be on video, but I saw it on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Harry Palmer, former spy for MI5, is now a disheveled unsuccessful detective, but Ross, his former handler, breaks into his office one night to try and entice him back for a mission, to no avail. Instead, Harry gets a request, via a computerized voice on the phone, to pick up a thermos filled with eggs and deliver it to a Dr. Karnaa in Helsinki. But the delivery is made to a sexy woman (Anya) and her American lover (Leo) who live all alone on an island; Karnaa is dead and the eggs are being taken to a Texas oil millionaire (General Midwinter) who leads a fascist militia group called Crusade for Freedom. Their goal: to lead an armed invasion of Russia, which will be accomplished when Leo's vast army of spies disable the military with deadly viruses (from the eggs) and foment a people's revolt. The eggs were stolen from the British, so Palmer winds up working with Ross from MI5 anyway. Eventually, they end up in Texas where Palmer finds out that Leo has been cheating Midwinter, taking money intended for the army of spies and spending it on himself. Still, the millionaire leads a small band of troops to Russia for an armed invasion, from which, of course, no good will come.

This is the third of three Harry Palmer spy movies, based on books by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine. Ken Russell directed this, his first major film, without the flamboyant over-the-top features he would bring to THE DEVILS, ALTERED STATES, and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, but with a keen eye for landscapes, color, and lighting—check out the noir style-drenched opening scene—and the finale, in which the fascists, to a man, die out on the ice against a handful of Russian planes, is spectacular. The plot is easy to follow in the beginning, gets rather convoluted in the middle, but stick with it: all you really need to remember is that the Russians are the good guys this time. The only real plot problem I had involved the French femme fatale Anya (Francoise Dorleac); it's impossible to keep track of whose side she’s really on, and the end revelation that she’s been working for MI5 all along makes absolutely no sense. The location shooting in snowy Finland is lovely. Caine is good as is Karl Malden as Leo; Oscar Homolka is a Russian friend of Palmer's, and Ed Begley Sr. (pictured with Caine) is a real scene-stealer as the loony Midwinter, whose company's logo consists of the letters "MW" stylized into something close to a swastika. This isn't as serious as a LeCarre film would be, not as outré as the Bond movies.  It strikes its own unique tone and is well worth seeing.  [TCM]

Monday, December 03, 2012


An old-school adventure epic with stars, great locations, lovely use of widescreen, but only so-so writing and acting. A tribe of warriors conquer the Mayans and kill the old king; his son Balam (George Chakiris) leads his people to the coast where, despite being afraid of falling off the edge of the world, they set sail for a new land across the Gulf of Mexico to what is today Texas. An Indian tribe, fearing the Mayans, sends their chief Black Eagle (Yul Brynner) to investigate; he is captured by the Mayans and set to be sacrificed; Balam, who is against human sacrifice, wants to stop it, but Ah Min (Richard Basehart), his second-in-command, argues for continuing the ritual. Complications ensue: both Balam and Black Eagle are in love with Mayan princess Ixchel (Shirley Ann Field), and the warriors who drove out the Mayans land on shore, threatening both the Mayans and the Indians. This film isn't bad but it doesn't stand out from the historical epic crowd. It looks good, shot on location with a huge cast of extras in Mayan costumes. The culture-clash story is interesting, though the individual characters aren't especially compelling. Chakiris is OK in the beginning, but he can't compete with the charismatic, studly Brynner (pictured). I liked Basehart well enough, though his grey bun hairdo is distracting. Field is a rather bland love interest. The final battle scene is nicely handled. If you already have a taste for this kind of epic, this will be right up your alley. [TCM]